The latest horror smash-hit from A24, Talk to Me and its unbelievable success prove audiences will flock to the cinema in droves for fresh and inventive horror. While the horror genre’s exploration of dark psychological themes is not a new concept, Talk to Me is a refreshingly assured entry into the elevated horror canon. Danny and Michael Philippou’s feature debut examines how the isolation of grief makes someone particularly vulnerable — and in the case of teenage protagonist Mia (Sophie Wilde), highly susceptible to manipulation by evil spirits and addiction to possession.
When we first meet the Australian high schooler, it’s on the second anniversary of her mother’s death. Having silently endured the tidal waves of grief all day, she’s searching for a means to forget her pain for the night. Enter Mia’s classmates Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio) — they’ve been throwing the school’s hottest parties, the main attraction of which is an eerie embalmed hand that allows supernatural forces to enter the body of whoever dares to hold it. The possession provides a literal out-of-body experience, followed by a state of total ecstasy after the spirit leaves you. Mia and her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) see that the latest party is happening that night, opening Snapchat to videos of a possessed teen with eyes like glassy black orbs, convulsing rapidly as the partygoers cheer. While Jade rolls her eyes at the videos and questions their validity, Mia watches with utter fascination, foreseeing a miraculous potential escape route from the exhaustion of grieving. Her heedless urgency to attend is a sharp juxtaposition to Jade’s healthy skepticism — a glaring alarm bell for Mia’s fragile mental state and susceptibility to dark influences.
What’s a fun thrill for other partygoers is an experience much more profound for Mia. It’s a release from the searing pain of grief and a chance to see her mother again. Like any recreational drug usage, what might begin as a social experience at a party can be the gateway to an unyielding cycle of addiction. It can easily slip into the hands of someone suffering and become a dangerously addictive means of deliverance from mental anguish. The shocking opening sequence foreshadows what can happen if someone becomes hooked on the high of possession. The film begins with a teen named Cole (Ari McCarthy) frantically searching a house party for his brother Duckett (Sunny Johnson), who has completely lost control of himself to the dark spirit world. When Cole finds him, he stabs him before killing himself. We eventually learn that Duckett became hooked on the thrilling escape and quickly spiraled out of control, foreshadowing what will soon happen to Mia.
To prevent them from meeting a fate like Duckett’s, Joss and Hayley have firm rules in place. You cannot invite the spirit in for more than 90 seconds – the time limit comparable to the maximum dosage of a drug, and you must be restrained to a chair suffocatingly tight, ensuring that the spirit does not cause you or anyone around you harm. When Mia first participates in the ritual, she goes over the time limit, effectively overdosing on the spirit world and, unbeknownst to her, inviting a dark supernatural force into her body. Later that night, she glows with happiness when describing to Jade’s brother Riley (Joe Bird) what her first possession felt like. Staring at the ceiling in a dream-like haze, she describes how “amazing” and “incredible” it felt to leave her body and watch the world from above. Her nostalgic recollection, heightened by Aaron McLisky’s ethereal cinematography, is a frightening indicator that she’s already hooked on the high of possession.
The second time Mia and her friends use the hand, the nature of the high it brings is made glaringly apparent. In a montage that is equal parts boisterous and horrifying, an upbeat tune plays as they pass the embalmed hand around like a blunt. After several turns, they tip their heads back in blissful exhaustion, breathing heavily and dizzy with laughter. Their enjoyment reveals why and how people in dire need of an escape become hooked. When Riley takes a turn with the hand, the evil spirits pretend to be Mia’s mother (Alexandria Steffensen), knowing it’s exactly what it will take to lure Mia into their trap. She immediately wells up with tears, pleading for Joss and Hayley to let Riley stay possessed for a little longer despite the time limit. In the presence of her mother’s spirit, Mia abandons logic and neglects the safety measures to be with her longer. It’s a painfully familiar symptom of addiction — nothing matters anymore to Mia except this escape from her suffering.
With the knowledge that she can connect with her mother through the hand, Mia drifts into the spirit world’s clutches, preferring to be possessed by her mother than faced with the bleak reality of loss. Now armed with a method of relieving her grief, she quickly spirals out of control, abandoning the safety protocols of becoming possessed. After Riley’s possession goes horrifically wrong and sends him to the hospital, Mia sneaks the hand into her backpack and brings it home to use in secret. When she uses the hand to connect with her mother again that night, it’s out of both a wish to escape her guilt over Riley’s hospitalization and a desperate desire to be in the comfort of her mother’s presence. When her mother does appear to her, Mia falls asleep in her embrace. The image of Mia cradled in her arms, unaware that it’s an evil spirit in disguise, is a beautiful and tragic visualization of Mia’s state of addiction — she’s fallen right into their trap, manipulated by the presence of the person she’d do anything to bring back.
When Mia’s father reveals to her that her mother died by suicide, it shatters the small comfort Mia took in believing her mother did not leave her by choice. The news hits her like a dagger to the heart, obliterating any emotional resolve she had left and leaving her fully susceptible to the spirits’ influence. They trick her into killing her father, and when she realizes what she’s done, the look of resignation on her face is the harrowing image of a girl who cannot take any more pain. From this point forward, Mia seems to be under the total influence of the evil spirits, having lost all control of herself. In the film’s tragic final moments, she storms toward the interstate on a mission to kill Riley, spurred by the spirits’ plea that she must kill him to save his soul from a lifetime of torment. At the last second, Mia decides to kill herself instead, running into oncoming traffic and sparing Riley’s life.
With this, the spirits succeeded in their quest to gain a new soul. They pulled the strings of her fragile emotional state, manipulating her by offering a respite from the aching loss of her mother. Like any addictive substance, when in the hands of someone silently suffering, it can provide a temporary and ultimately lethal cure. Addiction preys on the most vulnerable, and grief makes Mia the exemplary bait. Her possession, like any addiction, seizes control of her life and causes her to make illogical, fatal decisions. Mia’s demise proves a razor-sharp parallel to the nightmarish throes of addiction, the suffocating weight of grief molding the perfect, defenseless victim.