The Possession is a very effective exorcism film pulled down by the weight of bland and irrelevant character development. You need to connect to the characters in this style of horror to fully invest in the terror. Unfortunately, any defining characteristics of the family in peril are totally arbitrary.
Clyde and Stephanie are divorced parents of two girls, Hannah and Em. They split custody on the weekends. When Clyde brings Hannah and Em to his new home on the outskirts of town, the girls aren’t quite sure about their new surroundings. It only gets worse when Clyde lets Em purchase an ornate wooden box at a yard sale. The seemingly impervious box will only open for the young girl, who quickly becomes obsessed with her new prized possession.
Screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White hit upon something rare in Hollywood: a new idea. Exorcism films are a dime a dozen; Jewish exorcism films based in traditional folklore are something else entirely. Snowden and White do some pretty remarkable things when they’re dealing with the possession, the box, and the exorcism scene. They stumble on building a story that supports the weight and complexity of the folklore.
Even the central conceit of the film, exorcism as a metaphor for divorce, is nothing new. It doesn’t necessarily have to be new. It just needs to be well-written. The Possession is not.
Every writing exercise book features a variation of the same exercise. You have a chart with three or four columns and many rows. You randomly choose an occupation, a conflict, and a character trait. This film feels like everyone’s characteristics were decided by chance.
There is no reason why Clyde is a college basketball coach obsessed with work. Nothing is gained from Stephanie staying at home to launch a jewelry business. Hannah is a sarcastic dancer and Em is an optimistic animal rights activist. The story would not change at all if Clyde was a professional ballet dancer divorced from his wife Stephanie, an amateur MMA fighter, with two daughters participating in robotics and the Future Teachers of America. Every moment spent dwelling on these arbitrary descriptors is a moment that takes away from the brutality and horror of the fantastic exorcism sequence.
Director Ole Bornedal pulls together one of the more riveting exorcism sequences I’ve seen in years. As soon as the true evil is set in motion, The Possession becomes an entirely different film. These characters are suddenly believable–divorced from the frivolous descriptors–as they’re relationship boils down to its core: a family in peril. The acting comes alive as the word soup of story development is replaced with a hearty entree of genuine suspense and horror. If you give professionals actual material to work with, they’ll bring it to life.
The problem then becomes the opening scene of the film. Guess what? All of the conflict that happens in the first half of the film is a recapitulation of a three minute opening scene. We see an older woman succumb to the box, resist the box, and get punished by the box before we even meet the main characters in the film. Any chance of suspense created by the box and Em’s strange behavior is killed by a poorly conceived and staged shock scene at the top of the film.
It is not until Clyde is told by an archaeology professor what the box actually is that The Possession builds any sense of suspense. Matisyahu comes in as the son of a powerful rabbi in the large Orthodox community of Borough Park, Brooklyn and breathes life into the story. The popular musician’s performance is so strong partly because the tradition, faith, and rituals or Orthodox Judaism are so far removed from what we’ve seen onscreen before. He has this commanding presence and naturalism that makes even the most outrageous moments of the exorcism seem real.
If the entire film was able to have that sense of authenticity, it would be a masterpiece. The Possession fails because the writers did not believe enough in their source material to let something novel and different be the film itself. I’d gladly pay again to see a 90 minute horror that plays as strong as the last 40 minutes of this film. That’s not what we’re actually given here.
Thoughts on The Possession? I wish modern films, in general, would be willing to embrace other cultures in an authentic way. If you treat the subject with the respect it deserves, it will come alive. What did you think? Sound off below.