College basketball coach Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) may not have his life together completely after a divorce from Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), but he’s on the way. He’s got two lovely daughters, Em (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport), a new house, possible future great job offers, and he seems to be on good terms with his new single status. Everything seems to be going okay, as far as divorces go. Em is still hoping the family can pull back together, but the kids seem fine aside from that. Until Em discovers a cool old box engraved with Hebrew words at a yard sale. The box is locked tightly and really well designed, so it must contain something cool, right?
As it turns out, that box contains a dybbuk – a Jewish demon – that should not be let out. Unfortunately, Em successfully opens the box and unleashes an evil presence. (Don’t you hate when that happens?) Em changes a bit, turning violent, hanging out with moths, talking in a creepy voice, and pretty soon it’s obvious even to the most skeptical of parent that their child is under the influence of some sort of unnatural force. Fortunately,Clyde has some help on his syde in the form of Tzadok (Matisyahu), who won’t let a good man suffer when he can do something to help.
Can one lone rabbi succeed in banishing a powerful demon from Em? Or will the dybbuk claim the life it is seeking?
From a plot point, there’s nothing new about The Possession. It’s a ‘girl gets possessed by a demon’ story, the likes of which hits the movies pretty much once a year, if not more often. The only wrinkle this one has over, say, The Devil Inside is the topic of religion. Turns out, it’s not just Catholics who believe in demonic possession; Jewish people believe in it, too! That angle alone makes for an interesting variant on an old trope, given the colorful rituals and outfits of the ultra-orthodox Jewish set and the inevitable comparisons to the Catholic version of the same ritual. It’s different, that’s for sure. There’s less rhythmic praying and more singing and head-bobbing.
I guess the chanting part is why they cast Matisyahu as the young Rabbi willing to perform a good deed and come to the aid of Em and her family. Being the world’s most famous ultra-orthodox Jew, he’s a great choice for the role of a young, brave rabbi willing to take on a demon when the older, smarter rabbis refuse to help. He’s got a natural charisma, albeit limited when compared to Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick. Those two, as the leads, are excellent; even the kids are decent to good, and that’s rare.
It’s a credit to screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (The Boogeyman, Knowing) that Clyde and Stephanie feel like a real divorced couple, and the foursome feel like a real divorced family who are amicable in their parting (at least, as far as I can tell). While I’m not a child of divorce, I know folks who are and I watch enough Teen Mom and the like to know how not to behave when you’re split up from your baby daddy/mama. There are still some bad bits of dialogue, but they’re few and far between. For the most part it’s a standard, but well done, exorcism flick.
One thing I can say for The Possession: there was not an over reliance on jump scares. Instead, director Ole Bornedal works hard to make the movie itself suspenseful and build scares organically. He is obviously influenced by Ghost House mastermind Sam Raimi, and there are some very Raimi camera movements and shot compositions at work in the movie, to its benefit. Say what you want to about Sam Raimi, but he knows how to position the camera effectively, and he knows how to make things creepy.
That said, it’s yet another exorcism flick. Was it really necessary? Even with the Jewish angle, and even with some good actors and clever set pieces, it’s still another possessed girl movie, and we’ve seen that sort of thing a lot before. The Possession is well executed, but fairly standard. It won’t surprise fans of the genre with anything unexpected, but perhaps that’s the point. It’s a PG-13 Jewish exorcist with no real major flaws.