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The Possession Review

By Jim Dooley

Crazy Like a Box


"The Possession" walks common ground in the horror genre. The story revolves around an evil spirit's possession of a young girl and her family's fight to get their innocent baby back by enlisting an eccentric religious authority, helped by their love and an estranged father's self sacrifice.

The film is based in Jewish legend. An ancient, evil spirit may inhabit an innocent, holing up inside her body, so as to stay out of the sight of God. This residency has symptoms similar to Catholic possession. A rabbi may exorcise and jail the spirit in a wooden box - a dibbuk - so it will not find another host.

The dibbuk is an effective image for a horror film: a rectangular ark of ancient wood, its lush patina inscribed with Hebrew and decorative carvings but without any recognizable seams or hinges. Beautiful and sublime, it is a fetish, a time capsule, and a pandora's box.

The film opens with an older woman plagued by whispers. She approaches the dibbuk, on a mantle in her living room. With a look as though she must finally act, she tries to raise a ball-peen hammer against the box, but is gripped with convulsions.

Meet the Brenek family: Clyde, a successful division two college basketball coach (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, "Grey's Anatomy"), his ex-wife, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick, "The Closer"), and their two daughters, teenage Hannah (Madison Davenport, "Shameless", US version) and pre-teen Emily (Natasha Calis).

Recently divorced, Clyde has the girls on weekends. During their first weekend in his new house, the trio pop into a yard sale to pick up dishes for the new home. Em is drawn to the dibbuk, and her father buys it for her.

Em comes to hear voices, to suffer brown outs, and to 'act out' while in the presence of the box. After asking her father, and then playing with it in bed, she opens the box (or it opens for her). It contains petrified, giant moths and a number of talismans: a silver ring, a human tooth, a small horse figurine, a bird's remains. "Is my box okay", becomes a recurrent concern when she speaks with her father over the phone.

Clyde, concerned with this obsession, attempts to dispose of the box. Em follows the whispers to find and open the box again, at which point the spirit, as a swarm of moths, flies into her mouth, to nest and to subjugate Em.

The acting is excellent, especially given the genre. The script is promising, if not inventive. There is also balance between the horror and the family wish fulfilment narratives. But with the execution, scenes are episodic. Some are deliciously cringe-worthy, but they do not hang together.

Director Ole Bornedal drills a number of images and tropes: moths flying around the innocent; a benevolent teacher thrown through a plate glass window; teeth falling out of a strong man's mouth; aerial shots of a planned community, its houses like so many chips on a motherboard; characters' eyes rolling into the backs of their heads. The images should serve as motifs for a compelling Freudian narrative or critique of suburbian self-satisfaction. But Bornedal cannot stitch them together.

The story suggests but does not enumerate how a divorce affects a family, that even the seemingly unaffected youngest child will lash out as a result of this pivotal event. She will likely act out at school and with figures of authority; at a parent's new companion; at the parent she is left to live with; and eventually even to her disenfranchised father.

As the spirit takes a stronger hold on the innocent girl, so should the rebellions. If it is not a strictly linear exhibition of power, the evil spirit might visit more devastation against those Em holds a recent grudge with or who are substitutes for her mother or father. Once the spirit goes from whispers to an entity growing inside her, the threat might increase exponentially, as might direct confrontation of the parents. The physical decadence could be accompanied by precocious, inappropriate advances toward father substitutes and to the father himself.

Unfortunately, Bornedal front-loads the most violent and disturbing scenes. He presents an evil whose agency seems unlimited from the start. He has repressed the child sexuality that should terrorize the family. The father's authority is never questioned by Em; Daddy is infallible. In the end, "The Possession" neatly reinscribes the family. The brush with pure evil seems to have left no scars on any of the family members. As a result, neither will the film.

What did you think?

Movie title The Possession
Release year 2012
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary There are some chills to be had in this "Exorcist" retread, but not enough to truly possess you.
View all articles by Jim Dooley
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