Title: The Possession
Director: Ole Bornedal
Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Madison Davenport, Natasha Calis, Matisyahu, Grant Show
A generally well orchestrated sense of moodiness outstrips any of the potential baser genre inclinations of “The Possession,” a supernatural thriller which tells the story of a young suburban girl in the throes of demonic control. Charting mostly familiar territory, director Ole Bornedal’s wintry chamber piece — based on a 2004 “Los Angeles Times” article by Leslie Gornstein — aims for a slowly escalating sense of tension before blowing its wad in rather customary fashion.
Recent divorcées Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick) are making a go of the whole split-household thing in their Northeastern suburban town. Clyde, a basketball coach, has a new home in a community still being developed, and their daughters, Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Em (Natasha Calis), seem to be adjusting okay to their mother’s goofy new boyfriend, Brett (Grant Show), who’s around their old house a lot. When Em becomes a bit obsessed with a mysterious antique wooden box purchased for her at a yardsale by her dad, it at first rings no alarms. When it’s revealed that the box houses a dibbuk, a dislocated spirit from Orthodox Jewish mythology that inhabits and ultimately devours its chosen host, Clyde seeks out rabbinical help, which leads him to the sympathetic Tzadok (singer Matisyahu, in his screen debut).
The film’s focus on religious elements different than the standard Catholic exorcism rites which feed so many of these tales (its original title was “The Dibbuk Box,” something much more interesting than the generic moniker of “The Possession”) gives it a bit of genre differentiation. But it doesn’t ultimately root down deep enough into the specific Jewish subcultural factors, and husband-and-wife screenwriters Stiles White and Juliet Snowden never connect the cursed object to the family in any deeper fashion than the coincidental. It becomes just a handy but somewhat shrugging third-act add-on to much religious chanting, screaming and body contorting — hardly an essential part of the narrative. A standard clap-trap finale fumbles away a bit of goodwill as well.
Instead, working with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, the Danish-born Bornedal (“Nightwatch”) embraces the narrative clichés of the genre on a certain level, and endeavors to work viewers into a nervous tizzy by virtue of puppet-master technique. This means foreboding slow-motion tracking shots, high-angle shots to underscore human futility in the face of such spirit-world elements, and a score by Anton Sanko that is utilized in effective touchstone fashion. It works, for most of the movie, even if certain scenes here and there — a teacher grading papers alone in her classroom late at night? — puncture the elegant veneer of based-on-true-events classiness that “The Possession” otherwise endeavors to summon forth.
The performances are for the most part solid, although the scenes become a bit creakier and purely functional when Morgan and Sedgwick eventually have to turn to Matisyahu. Morgan — whose distinctive voice is like a honey-dipped cigar wrapped in a velvet pouch — delivers a grizzled, mostly low-key performance that strikes all the right chords of a concerned patriarch. It certainly helps, too, that youngster Calis has some depth and savvy instincts of withholding, to go alongside the requisite make-up that reduces her visage to an unnerving pallor. If one is more apt than not to enjoy a movie of this type, “The Possession” delivers on more than it botches, to be sure.
Written by: Brent Simon