If The Possession really was 9/10ths of the law, our entire legal system would pretty much be based on The Exorcist. (I imagine many of our penal codes revolving around proper crucifix protocols.) Watching director Ole Bornedal speed through William Friedkin’s spooky structure, transposed to Judaism and afraid to push any buttons that might threaten the film’s precious PG-13 rating, is like listening to somebody summarize a movie they saw just once, twenty years ago, that was drastically cut for television. Make no mistake, The Possession feels like a knockoff, but there’s nothing wrong with a knockoff every now and again. The Possession isn’t just The Exorcist through the veil of Judaism, it’s The Exorcist from the perspective of a very different kind of parent. We might not always feel Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s terror, but to the film’s credit we usually feel his pain.
Morgan stars as a college basketball coach still dealing with the aftermath of a passive-aggressive divorce from Kyra Sedgwick, who has custody of his two children, played by Madison Davenport (elder) and Natasha Calis (younger). His daughters respond to divorce the way many normal children would, with a combination of frustration and misplaced hope, and Morgan feels much the same way. He plies them with pizza and instantly gratifying gifts, like a spooky old wooden box young Calis is attracted to at a local yard sale. He just wants everything to be okay, preferably even back to normal, and although he’s absent-minded enough to miss his teenaged daughter’s dance recital he’s at least decent enough to beat himself up for it.
Morgan’s sad-eyed performance is a little atypical for the actor, who usually seems relegated to tough guy roles thanks to his bulky physique, strong jaw and velvety, baritone voice. If the entire movie had centered around his attempts to balance his newly isolated existence and the infrequent, awkward visits from his judgmental little girls The Possession would have needed to change its title, but would also have been better for the change. Even when the Dybbuk in a box finally does pop out and parasitically latch onto an appropriately wide-eyed Natasha Calis, alienating Morgan further from his family thanks to his seemingly paranoid suspicions, The Possession still occasionally excels when the focus remains on his sympathetic paternal anxieties.
Where The Possession unfortunately fails to excel is in the realm of actual scariness, due largely to a neutered external threat. There are moments when lives are imperiled, or physically tortured at any rate (hang on to your teeth), but when your horror movie relies on unconvincing CGI facial contortions and swarms of utterly harmless moths to petrify audiences, there may be a fundamental problem involved. The only true terror in The Possession lies in the sneaking suspicion that your offspring has a life-altering ailment, in this case an emotional one, completely justified (seemingly) by the recent disruption in her home life. Your daughter has been possessed by a Jewish folk demon, and you have nobody to blame but yourself? Moths don't sting, but that certainly does.
But rather than take the metaphor – demonic possession as a stand-in for burgeoning psychosis – to its logical extreme, and allow a therapist or two in on the action, the climax finds them in a plain old-fashioned hospital, revisiting the similar sequence in The Exorcist without the proper justification of projectile vomit. By this point Morgan has enlisted the aid of a charismatic young Rabbi, played with remarkable sympathy by pop star Matisyahu, and the jump-scare finale has to take center stage, pushing legitimate emotional horror to the sidelines and, tragically, forgetting to give Morgan’s character the catharsis, heroic or tragic, that he needed to effectively conclude his story beyond resolving the whole demon thing.
I can see what possessed Ole Bornedal to make The Possession. At its heart are fine, unsettling notions of paternal horror in a genre often associated with The Exorcist’s Oscar-nominated matriarch. Morgan is unlikely to receive any such highfalutin accolades for his leading man turn here, but his sincere performance does wonders in elevating the material when familiar genre tropes all-too-frequently distract attention away from the emotional core of the script. The Possession doesn’t take a firm hold of you, but it does manage to claw a few meaty chunks out now and then. When you’re not subconsciously singing “That’s My Dybbuk in a Box!” in the back of your head, anyway.