Director Ole Bornedal
Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgewick, Natasha Calis, Madison Davenport, Grant Show, Matisyahu, Ella Wade
Screenplay Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
There is a scene early in the film, Possession, where, with the process already started, older sister Hannah (Davenport) notices her sister, Emily (Calis) acting lethargically while the first-born practices a dance routine. Hannah asks her what is wrong, Em, says she doesn’t feel like herself lately. Hannah, caught in her own world like people of any age can be, thinks that this is an adverse reaction of her parents’ year-long separation finally culminating in a divorce.
“Sometimes,” the older sister tells her sister, “You have to act like you just don’t give a shit.”
I think that she may have used a different word for that last one, but given the film is PG-13, I believe I am pretty accurate in my recollection. The best thing I recall from that moment, though, is the feeling of how perfectly everything is executed to that moment. In the plain, grey light of the off white garage and the gray sky, one can feel the impending pendulum of doom swinging ever back and forth, creeping ever downward.
By now, the idea of a demonic possession film script should be evolving. Starting off with a bang with The Exorcist back in the early ’70’s, it is a road taken often, but never explored satisfactorily. The Paranormal Activity series started off relatively strong, with 2 films that built on one another and a format that got more chills than we are used to, but the last one headed right into the ditch. Finally both the documentary and possession formats hit their nadir with the wretched The Devil Inside, it seemed like there were no more ideas left than contorting bodies, eyes turning white and alternate voices.
Thank God for Possession, then. It has less of the crap you’re tired of seeing by now, but
enough to keep it recognizable. The script, acting and direction are incredibly cohesive. The most important facet to the story, is that there is a story, and a deceptively simple one, at that. With the relatively sad, but completely normal backdrop of a father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, in his best performance since Watchmen) moving into his post-divorce house, we see the first night he is to spend there with both of his girls. That night goes fine, if you count bribery as a good sign, and, the next day, needing some dishes for the new house, he heads out with Hannah and Emily to scour the local yard sales. Very soon after this, the younger girl finds a mysterious looking box that gives her father no sense of worry, and, paying for it, they take it home. After trying unsuccessfully to open the box, he leaves it to his daughter, who takes it into her room for the night. There would be no movie, if the box stayed closed, so I will leave the rest of it to the viewer.
The performances throughout the film are quiet and effective. Morgan has been on the verge of a breakout performance, since his portrayal of an evil superhero as well his television spots. If this is not it, I am not sure if he will ever make it. I have enjoyed him in a lot of bad films, and a few decent ones. If he ever gets the right director, he could win an Oscar. His approach to his daughter’s change in behavior is believable. As a father of two girls myself, each move he makes, outside of turning on a light once in a while, mirror what I would pursue. The gradual nature of the happenings could, individually, seem to not be connected. When the dots become impossible to ignore, he throws himself into it with a mixture of horror and problem solving that most any father might feel while watching it unfold.
Calis gives a truly powerful performance of an innocent girl, afflicted both by circumstance and loneliness. Of course no one can understand her until it’s quite apparent. The importance to this story is that there is no foolish insistence that nothing be wrong. Everyone around her, cares for her and has no concept what she is facing. That it does not stop them from trying to face it with her makes this a winner.
Sedgewick, as her mother, dating a new, vacant vessel, (Show, in a thankless performance), has a lot on her hands when things seem to have taken a turn. Leading to this, the chemistry of her relationship with the father of her children seems believable, when you see them watching an old video of themselves. Once it appears that her ex-husband may have attacked their daughter, she stumbles out of the gate on her own. She needs the help of her ex-though, and does not spend much of the film stubbornly resisting the idea. The reasons for their split don’t amount to a lessened amount of attraction or love, just a practical nature that sees a split as inevitable.
That the divorce was handled so well is not an accident of the script, however. The split works in an allegorical way as well. As one who resents the casual way that divorce has been handled in Hollywood for the last 50 years, this effort goes into a special class of movies where they treated it in an adult way; the story benefits from it.
Jewish rapper Matisyahu makes a virtuoso performance as a young rabbi who enters the story in the 3rd act and, once more, adds a thoughtful and faithful viewpoint to the proceedings. By taking it as seriously as Fathers Merrin and Karras, we are drawn deeper into the story even when the climax involves a routine of flashing lights for no apparent reason.
The film is not without its flaws, but lo, these flaws are few and far between. There is a call to common sense when people steadfastly refuse to turn out the lights. There are some interesting characters introduced in a fascinating way but not rediscovered later. The law of the economy of characters is not one I particularly appreciate, though. It’s a ride down the middle of the road, and this reviewer, like Neil Young, can appreciate driving into the ditch occasionally.
(****1/2 out of *****)