There is a very good movie hidden away inside of Ole Bornedal’s The Possession, but like the ornate wooden box causing all the titular trouble, clichéd horror movie antics keep locking it away from the audience.
Unlike most late summer thrillers, The Possession gets close to its characters and their mundane struggles and it even has time to make that sagacious professor, who provides all the helpful supernatural info, a singular and beguiling character. Eventually there is an exorcism, but when it arrives it suggests nothing so much as a Hasidic rap battle against the forces of darkness. The whole enterprise is balanced on an honest and heartfelt performance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a concerned father trying to hold his family together. It should be a homerun, but it’s not. Not quite.
Let’s go back to the box for a moment. Acting as a formidable metaphor for horror movies themselves, this alleged ‘dybbuk box’ is a handsome, hand-crafted container furnished with old trinkets and odd human keepsakes, fitted with a mirror that hides the occupant’s true name, and finally, confining a demon so it cannot escape and spread its spiritual disease. When young Emily finds the box, it’s being sold at a yard sale and she’s instantly enamored of its dark, wood exterior and elaborate Hebrew carvings. Only later does her father Clyde (Morgan) note that there are no seams; it appears no one wanted this thing opened.
Inside the box is a Dybbuk, or a dislocated soul, looking for a human vessel to inhabit so it may continue living. The direct translation in Hebrew for the word is ‘to adhere, or cling’ and the spirit has latched on to Emily, who is obsessed with the box in a way similar to most characters who stumble upon cursed objects. She carries it everywhere, sleeps with it, and has a confounding, strange scene where she tells her father that of course she doesn’t talk to the box (that would be silly), she’s talking to her friend that lives inside the box. Soon creepy moths are flying around in her bedroom, distorted reflections appear in that mirror, and Emily grows distant and even violent, attacking herself or others. Teachers and counselors are strangely dismissive; her parents have just gone through a divorce; that must be the reason for her current state.
When Clyde visits a religious studies scholar who works at the school where he coaches, he learns himself about dybbuks and what must be done to save his daughter. This scene is my favorite one in the film because of the presence of Jay Brazeau as the professor, who keeps looking over the lid of the box, and whispering arcane portents, all the while leering like he’s Charles Laughton. He takes a perfunctory scene and gives it a peculiar life.
This is also true of a follow-up scene where Clyde visits a New York Hasidic community and meets Tzadok, a young rabbi who’s more likely to be found on the steps singing along to his Ipod then in the synagogue wringing his hands with the elders. Tzadok is played by musician and actor Matisyahu, and he agrees to go with Clyde and perform a ritual to return the dybbuk to the box. Matisyhau delivers a matter-of-fact and rather amusing performance that gives a spiritual sort of authority to the final sequence where he must channel the power of God and command the dybbuk. Morgan is particularly good in this way too; he has a weary, rough-edged yet humble voice that seems to have been tailored specifically for reading scripture or prayer; he speaks as a man adrift, looking for divine solace.
In point of fact, there is not a bad performance anywhere in this movie. As I have mentioned, Morgan leads the pack as a kind of sweet sad-sack trying to reconnect with his estranged wife while doing right by his two young daughters. He’s in over his head even before the dybbuk arrives, but he’s no nonsense and proactive when he learns what’s really going on; John Winchester would be proud. Kyra Sedgwick, as Emily’s mother and Clyde’s ex-wife, matches Morgan’s understated intensity. Her scenes with Morgan are some of the trickier stuff, her strained smile saying ‘I still love you’ while her furrowed brow grumbles ‘I can’t live with you’. Natasha Calis does a reasonable job as the possessed Emily, constantly moving between precocious little girl to hundred year-old yenta with a grudge , which really, is probably even harder than it sounds.
Why must this kind of tale always be punctuated with such overtly ghoulish trappings? I know the film has bounced around in production for quite some time, and I’m unsure if it’s Bornedal or someone else that’s to blame, but it has been all but butchered in the editing room. The cinematography, dialogue and acting are all top notch but they get drowned out under an inappropriate and clanging score that sounds like someone river-dancing on a violin, badly handled and needless cgi, and poorly cut scenes that defy narrative logic. When Emily does something supernaturally destructive, there’s no much-needed reaction scene from her parents and Sedgwick’s troublesome dentist boyfriend leaves the film in a terribly dramatic fashion but isn’t even inquired over once he’s gone.
How is it that a mother so nervous about her child’s allergy that she bans pizza, doesn’t have a right conniption when same child pukes up several live moths? Morgan is concerned most of the time, but when he and Sedgwick discuss Emily’s troubles, he neglects to mention that point where she inhaled pancakes like she was Honey Boo-Boo and then stabbed him with a fork? These scenes happen but then the movie routes over to the next order of bad business. The care and affection for the family demonstrated in the early chapters gradually erodes. This leaves us with numerous scenes where characters poke around in darkness, while Vincent Price rocks out on the cow bell, and we wait for a jump scare.
How can I properly express my exasperation with these sorts of scenes? I love a good, tense sequence as much as any horror fan and am not ambivalent or opposed to jump scares, but they can be abused and in Possession, boy are they ever abused. The lady sitting behind me in the screening whispered during a particularly intense scene ‘I know that girl is on the ceiling!’ She wasn’t. Twenty minutes later, under different circumstances, she repeated the same thing. Again, no dice. Finally, as Morgan wanders through a creepy, darkened room, she whispered the prediction again. This time, she was right. Brat was totally on the damn ceiling. I, personally, was no longer interested. Silly shock tactics had taken over a story I initially cared about.
To a point, The Possession works and I want to recommend it, but it truly is a film ‘between two worlds’(another descriptor of a dybbuk)and in the end, it settles for the empty bombast. If the first half was reminiscent of Poltergeist, than the climax, featuring wrong-headed visual effects climbing out of someone’s throat is straight-up Poltergeist II: The Other Side. For me, this was an unfortunate downsizing of a picture that had started with so much creepy promise. Mark what I said about Jeffrey Dean Morgan, though. He’s really, really good here.