I’m not sure how much more mileage we can get out of these possession/exorcism movies. It feels like a horror sub-genre that’s been worn down, with each new film borrowing from the dozens before, using the same tricks over and over again, so the scares no longer register. There’s still a creepiness that sets in from watching another innocent woman or child being taken over by a demon (no one gives a shit about men), but, unless a new film is bringing something new to the table, it feels stale. It’s a good thing for THE POSSESSION then that director Ole Bornedal is able to use some fresh ideas and imagery to keep the film interesting, with the performances of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a father fighting for the salvation of his daughter and newcomer Natasha Callis as the affected young girl, who effectively balances her good and evil, able to connect with audiences solidly enough to make the film work beyond being another retread.
This time, rather than going over the familiar territory of possessions through Catholicism, it’s Judaism whose number gets called, with Dybbuk boxes getting the spotlight shone on them. Based on Jewish folklore (or is it?), the boxes are believed to house evil spirits or, in this case, a demon, who is released and looking for a live host to inhabit when the box is opened. It finds Emily Brenek (Callis) as the perfect target, a young girl looking for some type of direction as she tries to understand her way through her parents’ divorce. Her older sister is no help, only making matters worse by constantly reminding her of the upheaval in her family, and so when she begins to hear a voice that tells her she’s special from this cool wooden box she picked up at a garage sale, she’s open to letting it in, believing it to be friendly. Oh, children. As Em’s behavior becomes more erratic and her obsession with the box becomes increasingly worrisome, it’s up to her dad Clyde to figure out what’s causing her behavioral shift and ultimately to find out the truth about the Dybbuk.
The father-daughter relationship between Morgan and Callis is at the crux of how well THE POSSESSION plays. As her condition deteriorates, the love of her father, no matter how absent he may have been in the past as a basketball coach, strengthens, and he’ll do whatever he can, in order to release his little girl from the evil forces that have taken root within her mind, body and soul. The rest of the family – her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport, who for some reason just disappears about halfway through the movie for an extended period of time) – is really there to absorb some of the demonic materialization, be it a swarm of moths or a really cool set-up with an MRI, and not much else. However, there’s an understanding to be had for Clyde, as he may not have always been the best dad, but there’s no question how much he loves his kids. There’s no question how much he loved his ex-wife, too. In fact, he holds his entire family so near and dear to his heart that you know he’d be willing to go to the ends of the earth in order to do whatever any of them might ever need, including tracking down a Hasidic Jew exorcist (Matisyahu) when that seems to be the only hope. Morgan’s natural charm makes Clyde a likeable, but both you and he know how badly he’s fucked up the life he had, and you can’t help but want him to right the wrongs he was directly involved in creating… and now right the wrongs that he had no part in unleashing on his family.
Callis is superb as Em, taking this optimistic and naïve girl on a horrible journey towards hell right in front of us. The obvious tonal shifts that Bornedal makes to show which Emily – the good or the possessed – is with us at any given moment (dark eye shadow, dark clothes, etc.) can be laughable at times, but Callis is able to break through those giveaways that are handed to us, in order to give a much more nuanced performance of a girl who’s struggling with who she is and who she’s becoming, very much against her will. It’s sometimes easy for children to come across as creepy with their weird stares or their muted disposition, but Callis is able to do it with personality. She doesn’t rely on her childish features to set the tone… she convincingly moves between happy-go-lucky and menacing via her voice changes or frightened reactions to new visions without ever raising flags that this child can’t possibly be a threat to anyone. Callis is quickly able to establish herself as a dangerous force with her transformation, generating reactions of both sympathy and fear for both facets of her character.
Bornedal has an eye for the eerie. Without using violence or gore, he pieces together rough scene transitions, extraordinary cinematography and pretty remarkable sound design in order to set the uneasy tone THE POSSESSION needs. You feel like you always know what the next step might be, and, periodically THE POSSESSION does follow a predictable path, but Bornedal has enough guile to maneuver through this family-centric story that you can walk away feeling as if you did manage to see something new.
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