Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Possession

The Possession (2012)
Dir. Ole Bornedal
Written by Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Starring Natasha Callis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Matisyahu

One of the handsomer shameless ripoffs of THE EXORCIST that I’ve seen recently, and with one minor but fun twist: the power of Christ can’t compel anyone here. This is a strictly Jewish affair.

Yes, this unofficial sequel to A SERIOUS MAN finds Jeffrey Dean Morgan battling a dybbuk (Yiddish for “totally different from the Exorcist!”) over their disagreements as to who should be in charge of his adorable daughter’s mind. Morgan says her, or at the very least him; dybbuk thinks otherwise. Suddenly wondering if this is actually a subtle political metaphor.

Morgan  --luxuriating in his Robert-Downey-Jr-by-way-of-Seth-Rogan schlubbily handsome charm-- stars as a nice guy going through a civil but painful divorce with Kyra Sedgwick (talk about your closer!) and trying to keep his two daughters from thinking he’s a total asshole. Completely at random and for no reason at all, one day his younger daughter buys a creepy wooden box with a bunch of Hebrew written on it. It’s kind of like the HELLRAISER puzzlebox, it even has a secret unlocking mechanism that she figures out.

Well, if anything good ever comes from obviously evil ancient puzzleboxes being opened, I have yet to see the movie that proves it. This one is no different. Suddenly the cute little girl is acting all dybbuk-y and Morgan has to seek assistance from everyone’s favorite only-famous-person-with-a-payot, Matisyahu.

This looks like something a child would definitely want.

To the film’s credit, director Ole Bornedal does an excellent job getting the details right. I very much liked the obscure but unnerving contents of of the box (a bunch of tins that house obviously symbolic objects, notably a mechanical bug and a swath of cotton), I like the ballsiness of actually depicting the dybbuk literally by the film’s end. The film is striking shot, with some genuinely impressive cinematography that recalls (intentionally) Kubrick’s unsettling use of symmetry, space and minimalist design. All the performances are quite good, particularly the possessed daughter who does an amazing job for a 12-year old at being both a normal kid and a possessed monster. And it’s always nice to introduce a touch of a different culture into the horror genre, which can be so heavily dominated by wealthy white people and barely-concealed Christian imagery and themes.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole is depressingly short on original ideas and imagery. Despite it’s classy production, the story is never able to rise above its derivative mix of possession-movie cliches and establish it’s own classic iconography and sequences. Director Bornedal says he aspired to the subtly of horror in THE SHINING and THE EXORCIST, but the problem is that those movies could afford to be subtle because of the strength of their imagination and their boundary-pushing boldness. They were free to hint, because their hints suggested a kind of unbalanced nightmarishness that made us deeply uneasy. They courted our angst with both shocking images and evocative --but never completely overt-- symbolism that wormed it’s way past logic and into the primal brain. If you’re going to suggest, the symbolic images you use need to be strong enough that they allude to something truly upsetting going on beneath the superficially placid surface. EXORCIST has tons of these. Not so much so, here. The moths are a good touch (at first I thought they were locusts as a tribute to EXORCIST II) but other than that Bornedal never seems to really find a definitive image or concept to make his own. The result is that the movie ends up a collection of very pretty versions of scenes you’ve watched a million times.

The original butterfly effect

And honestly, I’m not totally convinced that Bornedal has watched THE EXORCIST very recently. That movie has its moments of subtlety, it’s true, but it’s also a frighteningly aggressive movie in other ways. THE POSSESSION isn’t. Nothing feels shocking or threatening here; there’s nothing perverse or any sense that the movie is genuinely going to get too rough with it’s characters. It’s too polite for it’s own good, and ultimately it ends up being a little unmemorable for it.  

Still, I like Bornedal’s ambition, and I think he genuinely has the talent to make his own classic someday.* This one just doesn’t have the imagination to back him up. When you can’t even think of a better title for this movie about a possession than “THE POSSESSION,” it may be time to go back and take another swing at adding something more memorable.

*He already made original NIGHTWATCH, which I hear is excellent, but unfortunately also the American remake of NIGHTWATCH, which I can confirm is horrible. I figure this brings him back to neutral.


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, "based on a true story," that story being that Jewish dybbuk folklore exists.
  • SEQUEL: No.
  • REMAKE: Basically.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Jeffery Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgewick
  • BOOBIES: Naw
  • ENTRAILS? Nope
  • CULTISTS: None.
  • CURSES: No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low. Theater film a few years back.
I had to think about this one a good bit, because it's so well made but also kind of dull. It's probably only 3 hooks in terms of entertainment, but it felt a little wrong to give it the same grade as SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES which is far more ugly and dumb. Ole Bornedal, don't ever say I never did nothin' for ya.

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