Mark Reviews Movies

The Possession

THE POSSESSION

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ole Bornedal

Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Natasha Calis, Kyra Sedgwick, Madison Davenport, Matisyahu, Grant Show, Jay Brazeau

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 8/31/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 30, 2012

The struggle in considering The Possession is between recognizing a completely familiar story without anything new to offer and acknowledging that said story is, for the most part, told well enough that we don't particularly mind its routine nature until the third act. At that point, the only thing setting the story apart is the supernatural elements—a demon and an exorcism ritual—have their foundation in Judaism instead of Christianity. The family affected by the demon—a dybbuk, or lost soul searching for life—doesn't seem to subscribe to any particular religion. The lesson, we gather, is that evil doesn't discriminate.

What helps keep the workings of the story from seeming so recognizable is the screenplay's focus on that family as they grapple to make an already difficult situation work. For you see, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) are divorced, and the strain on them and their daughters Em (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport) is already quite apparent. An ancient, evil spirit taking residence in one of the daughter's bodies isn't going to make things any easier on anyone involved.

Clyde coaches college basketball and has a hard time keeping to family obligations. He has his kids on the weekends, and he's a little more than proud to show them he's moving on with his life with the purchase of a new house. It's just for appearances, though, as he's visibly disappointed when one of the daughters tells him that Stephanie has said that it is indeed time to move forward. Her new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show) is even starting to make himself comfortable in Clyde's old house. At least he's there, Stephanie scolds her ex when he points out that fact.

Back at Clyde's house, Hannah, a typical teenager, hates that the house is in the middle of nowhere; Em is still enough of her daddy's girl to be happy for him. They even make shadow puppets on the ceiling at night before bed, using it as an opportunity to tell each other about their respective days. It's a sweet little scene—a calm and necessary prelude to what's about to befall the two.

At a yard sale (This fact leads to one of the movie's funniest lines when Clyde is asked where he could have gotten something so evil), Em is drawn to a mysterious wooden box with covered with etchings in Hebrew. It literally calls out to her. We have seen this box previously during the prologue, a scene that solidly establishes the central basis for the movie's horror. In it, a woman (Anna Hagan) is drawn to the box in a way similar to Em. Soon, her face droops her eyes roll into the back of her head, and she beings writhing and twisting through her living room, as her body makes dreadful snapping sounds. This form of uncontrollable self-punishment has become a staple of demonic-possession tales for good reason; it is inherently unnerving.

Director Ole Bornedal paces the scene for maximum visceral effect, and he gives the following scenes of Em slowly losing control of herself a similar momentum (Anton Sanko's score—alternating between modest, rhythmic poundings on various instruments and an all-out orchestral assault—helps when in the former mode but oversells when in the latter). In addition to the moments of bodily distortion, the presence of the demon, which Em releases from the box, brings with it a swarm of moths. They create quite a stir, obviously, especially when they circle Em in her bedroom or fly directly into her mouth (It's not all entomophobia, though; there is an amusing bit when Hannah discovers a moth in her bed and chides her father for killing it). Bornedal doesn't linger on these sequences any longer than necessary, cutting to black at the climax with a musical sting (as opposed to the one that typically accompanies a startle); it's a jarring effect.

The script does a fine job balancing the more conventional horror elements with the increasing pressure they bring upon the family. The domestic drama helps keep the otherworldly excess at bay, and when the two collide, like a moment when Em lashes at her father at the dinner table or another when the demon acts to make it appear as though Clyde is abusing his daughter, the movie uncovers the real potential for the horrifying in the material.

Then the plot machinations kick into gear, and Clyde starts suspecting his daughter might have more than psychological problems. A professor (Jay Brazeau) at the college he works at tells him about demonic possession. He starts studying them online. Eventually, he drives to a Hasidic neighborhood in New York City where a local rabbi insists he can nothing for his daughter. The rabbi's son Tzadok (Matisyahu) believes it is his duty to help her.

Thus begins the usual chanting, yelling of verses, and cries of pain of an exorcism ritual, punctuated by a lot of light effects and loud noises. Whatever good will The Possession has built up begins to dissipate rapidly, and we start to realize that maybe it wasn't worth struggling over in the first place.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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