More than competently executed, The Possession is sort of a tough one to tackle. Visually, it’s great. The direction is assured and the performances are all pretty top notch. So why did I walk away from it feeling unsatisfied? After all, this is a perfectly classy movie! I guess it comes down to this – the movie divides its attentions so much that it renders itself toothless (except for one scene when it’s literally and terrifyingly toothless). And it has severe pacing issues.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is great as Clyde, a recently divorced basketball coach – a guy’s guy – who gets weekend custody of his daughters Hannah and Em (Madison Davenport and Natasha Calis). He’s emotionally clumsy around the girls, but it’s endearing because he obviously loves them and is trying his best he can to speak a language he doesn’t quite understand yet – fatherhood. He’s also positioning himself to be the “fun parent” in the divorce, which isn’t exact hard given that he’s pitted an almost comically uptight Kyra Sedgwick. No gluten, no meat, no pizza, no shoes in the house, no being late, no fun. All reasonable requests on their own but, when they’re the only thing you know about someone, what kind of conclusions are you supposed to draw about them? Sedgwick actually does really good work here, managing to humanize her character sufficiently even though the script never gives her an apt opportunity to do so until the 3rd act.
Still, as unbalanced as it is, the family stuff kind of works. Structurally, all of the pieces are positioned for an engaging depiction of a broken family dynamic. With a little more shading added to Sedgwick’s character, I wouldn’t have minded watching the straight drama version of this movie just to see how this family managed to straighten out their lives sans demonic intervention.
Maybe I wouldn’t feel that way had the film actually embraced its actual conceit. But when Em picks up the haunted Dibbuk Box at a garage sale and the sh*t starts trying to hit the fan, the film never fully commits to her struggles. Instead, the tension ratchets up – something pretty freaky happens (moths, fingers in throats, running around on all fours with a steak in her mouth) – and then the tension diffuses for another 10 minutes while the film tries to become a drama again. This lurching on/off cycle repeats throughout the film’s 2nd act.
Matisyahu is actually pretty good as Tzadok, a young Hasidic Jew brought in to perform the exorcism. But he’s endemic of another one of the film’s problems – if you’re going to engage in Jewish mysticism and demons, please tell us something interesting about them. What makes them different? In what ways is the Jewish act of exorcism more dangerous? Any differences here from what we’ve seen before are strictly aesthetic deviations. It feels almost exploitive, “See? Our movie’s different? How? Beards!” The Possession would have been better served had it delved deeper into its Jewish mysticism component, but that would have meant devoting more screen time to its horror elements.
What we ultimately end up with is a nondescript exorcism film (the only kind there seems to be these days). It has enough cool stuff in it that I wouldn’t warn you to stay away, I’d rather warn you about what to expect if you go. An aggressively PG13 horror film. Half abridged family drama and half watered-down demonic possession film. It’s fine, but never more than that (except for that awesome teeth scene).
As Ron Swanson once said, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”