The Possession is a solid horror film that lacks the ambition to be anything beyond what it has to be. Its reluctance to challenge itself and the exorcism genre makes the film feel somewhat lazy. The Possession is a riff on themes made popular by The Exorcist where a spirit or demon is trying to take possession of a human host. The script takes the exorcism theme and plays with it, swapping out the typical Catholicism tropes with Judaism much like the film The Unborn tried to do a few years back. Unfortunately, director Ole Bornedal and writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles Whites don’t capitalize on the religious implications other than to provide the origin of the demonic forces and skew the angle of the exorcism ceremony. In fact, other than that, religion has very little to do with the themes of this film. There is no questioning of faith, there is no soul on a lost path; it boils down the confrontation to its base, a demon is trying to possess a young child. That’s it, which is lazy. However, the film succeeds in what it does set out to do with the help of authentic acting and some genuinely horrific imagery. It is thrilling, creepy, sometimes (or somewhat) scary and entertaining.
The story of The Possession centers around the dysfunctional, divorced Brenek family. The father, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), now living alone, struggles with handling his life without his family. He continues to pick up his children, Emily (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport) each weekend; but, they are growing more and more distant as the parents grow further apart. His loss is driven home by his ex-wife, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), claiming his old office in the family home, her changing lifestyle (vegetarian diet and removal of footwear at the front door) and her new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). When Clyde and his daughters stop at a yard sale, Emily finds an antique box and convinces Clyde to purchase it for her. The box proves to be much more than an odd antique with no immediately apparent way to open it when Emily discovers the contents hidden inside. Emily’s personality begins to slowly change as she grows increasingly attached to the box. A series of traumatic events lead Clyde to believe there is something more to the box and its mysterious contents. After a fellow teacher reveals the religious origins of the carvings on the box, Clyde turns to a Hasidic Rabbi to help save his daughter from the force inside the box which he learns is called a Dybbuk.
Jefferey Dean Morgan does a fantastic job with the role of Clyde, allowing him to be flawed and self-centered without being a jerk. Clyde feels like a real person with real problems making real mistakes and dealing with them in a natural way. The problem is that the script fails to provide Clyde with any conflict other than the possession, his divorce, and the decisions he faces. They’re all very surface-oriented problems. And they (the possession aside) feel as if they are nearly resolved from the beginning. He’s dealing with these problems already, regardless if his handling of them is flawed or not. The loss he is experiencing is obvious but there is no yearning on his part to change that. This results in weakening the impact as the audience isn’t nearly invested enough in his plight or that of his family’s. Morgan does the best and brings it home when it does come time to show more of Clyde’s personality and emotion, especially when dealing with the Hasidic community’s initial reluctance of becoming involved in Emily’s plight. But, his reaction to Rabbi Tzadock’s finally agreeing to help him reinforces his detached, self-absorbed nature. It a flaw he shares with Stephanie, his ex-wife, and a flaw that makes the final scenes feel more like their duty to the family than their need to defeat the unholy forces threatening their daughter.
Natasha Calis admirably rises to the challenges the film makers require of her in order to perform the role of young Emily, the possessed child of Clyde and Stephanie. She brings a deceptive innocence and an disquieting menace to her dual personalities. Where the story itself may not fully reach for new ground, Calis certainly does with her on-screen conviction. When the story demands that she switch from the angelic young daughter to the possessed soul, Calis incredibly morphs personalities with unsettling ease, making the end result that much more frightening. Sometimes this is subtle when she glances away referring to herself in the third person at the diner with her father (with the audible assistance of Ella Wade as the voice of the Dybbuk) or it is full on, full impact of her changing as she repeats the same saying over and over again in the dimly lit hospital morgue. The story may be focused on Clyde but Natasha Calis as Emily is glue that holds the film together.
The musician Matisyahu (Matthew Paul Miller) plays the role of Tzadok, the Hasidic Rabbi who feels honor-bound to help the child in need. He brings an authentic appearance and emotion to the film at the exact moment the film desperately needs it to continue. His eyes reveal a hidden understanding of the depth of the issue more than the supernatural effect have done to that point. If the audience is not yet convinced Emily is in dire trouble, Tzadok’s concerned gaze is more than enough to sell the true nature of the conflict. Matisyahu brings a focus and a purpose to the role beyond the dialog. He also has a charm that keeps the character and the proceedings from being too foreign or too buried in religious implications. It’s authentic but cinematic. The result is a character the audience sees far too little of, as he is introduced on the cusp of the third act.
Where many exorcism films focus on the horrific affects of a possession on the body, The Possession trades most of that in for more PG-13 friendly environmental effects. There is no head-spinning, gushes of blood and vomit or foul language found in films like The Exorcist or Beyond the Door, nor does it go for the contortionist approach of modern films like The Last Exorcism or The Devil Inside. Instead, The Possession illustrates the demon inside by providing its attempts to escape, most successfully by the fingers crawling out of the child’s throat, which is effective and chilling. Where The Exorcist and Poltergeist have rooms full of moving furniture and flying objects, The Possession settles on a room full of swarming moths. Much of these changes feel restrained by comparison. To its credit, the film keeps the effects and the need for these effects in a controlled pattern that feels natural for the story. Other than a few key moments, this restraint feels like missed opportunities. Thankfully the final confrontation between the Brenek family and the physical manifestation of the Dybbuk is kept brief as the CGI is not nearly strong enough to support the creature. The scene cries out for a more practical effect.
The Possession is a perfectly adequate PG-13 horror film. It delivers the chills and thrills it promises. But its lack of character and conflict, beyond the possession itself, keeps the film from becoming anything more. While it is a solid film that looks great, has terrific acting and tells a creepy story, it ends up becoming forgettable with little emotional impact or resonance. The ingredients are all there but there is little attempt to reach beyond what is simply necessary. There are moments when it excels beyond its material: Clyde’s emotional appeal; Emily’s searching for the demon inside her; Emily’s reveal during the exorcism. But they are only moments. The whole feels like it settles on what it takes to make a creepy film without challenging itself or the audience for more. The Possession succeeds on its own merits however with an effectively chilling story, frightening imagery, and strong performance from Morgan, Calis and Matisyahu making it ultimately worth a watch.