The Possession suffers from a fatal flaw – namely that it’s not very scary and actually gets downright ridiculous at points – but that doesn’t discount its more interesting qualities. In August, with the likes of The Apparition ruining horror movies for everyone, anything displaying any level of competence is worth noting. The Possession covers a very old tale – too old for its own good in the final equation – but it gets bonus points approaching it from a different direction… and from the fine atmosphere accompanying it.
That last part comes courtesy of Danish director Ole Bornedal, who delivers a bleak, desaturated upstate New York in which to set his supernatural thriller. The empty suburbs and perpetually cloudy sky fit the mood exquisitely well, as do the claustrophobic interiors of ostensibly cozy family homes. To them, he brings a strong understanding of characters, notably the central family still reeling from a recent divorce. Father Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) coaches basketball at a nearby college, giving it his full attention at the expense of his family. Mother Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) has just moved in with a new beau and doesn’t expect her ex to change. They juggle their two daughters Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Em (Natasha Calis) as best they can, but fractures form between them along all of the usual stress points.
The Possession does its strongest work during these early scenes, as we watch the family edge around each other’s wounds in an effort to reconnect. Clyde and Stephanie still feel for each other, but her exasperation at his priorities has clearly reached its limit. Em, the youngest, doesn’t quite understand what happened, while her teenage sister quietly seethes at her father’s perceived priorities. Cast and director hit all the notes just right, selling us on the reality before us while pointing out the ideal psychological frailties for the right sort of monster to exploit.
Said monster forms another interesting piece of the movie’s puzzle. It’s a dybbuk, an evil spirit from Jewish folklore that dwells in an old carved box and waits for an innocent human soul to devour. Em finds the box at a yard sale, and soon enough begins vomiting up insects and speaking in languages she should not know. Bornedal carefully charts the girl’s decent into evil, letting Clyde and ultimately Stephanie go from skeptics to believers in time for the big climax. He also sticks close to the Judaic roots of his chosen boogeyman, notably in Clyde’s visit to an Orthodox neighborhood in search of answers and the young rabbi (Matisyahu) who agrees to help him.
The one-name performer – a unique icon of alternative rock who combines traditional Jewish music with reggae and hip hop – constitutes a further asset. He doesn’t look or feel like other exorcist figures, and he can deliver tons of Judaic-tinged exposition without fumbling over his words. Some of the film’s best lines belong to him, as does the final twist/coda which does far better for itself thanks to his presence.
With all that in its corner, what exactly is wrong with The Possession? Simply put, it cleaves far too closely to that other exorcism movie to give itself any breathing space. We’ve seen too many little girls possessed by demons to wonder where this is going, and the routine nature of the storyline lets us count off each beat like clockwork. With the scene set, Bornedal inexplicably descends into cheap theatrics, burying us beneath limp scares that misfire with shocking regularity. Morgan, an absolute pillar in the first half, promptly starts gnawing at the scenery in the second, where loud noises and wind machines become the order of the day. Characters develop a terminal case of The Stupids (for the love of God people, how many times to we have to tell you turn on the lights before going into the morgue!!!), and reveal shots intended to blow our minds falter on general atonality and the indifferently delivered CGI.
The Possession escapes the worst of it, again, with its adherence to cultural underpinnings. We’ve seen so many Catholic versions of this story that a Jewish one – particularly a respectful Jewish one – goes a long way. Pity it can’t get to the finish line, unfortunately. The bloodless PG-13 nature of the horror ties the director’s hands, and the novel surface covers up a very shopworn framework underneath. Without something more to unsettle us, all of the film’s good qualities come to naught, leaving it an interesting failure rather than the terrific shocker it could have been. We expected much less, of course; then again, the quality on display makes The Possession’s eventual failure all the more disappointing.