The slog that has been Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s career thus far isn’t likely to be revived by Ole Bornedal’s The Possession, an abysmal supernatural ordeal “presented” by Sam Raimi. To be clear, this bag of cliché-ridden tricks, donning the ever-dubious label of being “based on a true story,” isn’t Morgan’s cross to bear; it just reinforces his long-standing prowess as an amiable, thoroughly pedestrian performer. Indeed, as Clyde, the divorced father of a possessed young girl, Morgan neither exasperates nor elevates the material set forth by the Danish-born Bornedal and the writing team of Juliet Snowden and Stiles White.
White and Snowden are best known for working on Knowing, Alex Proyas’s Catholicism-infused end-of-days yarn, and they bring a kick of Talmudic prevalence to The Possession. After picking up a mysterious wooden box with Hebrew text carved into it, Clyde’s younger daughter, Em (Natasha Calis), begins spitting moths, growling and eating with a newfound voraciousness, and forming an obsessive attachment with the box. Clyde’s ex-wife, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgewick), thinks he’s to blame, as does his neglected elder daughter, Hannah (Madison Davenport), but Clyde’s colleague, Professor McMannis (Jay Brazeau), and a young Jewish exorcist, Tzadok (played by hip-hop/reggae artist Matisyahu), confirm that the box held a Dybbuk, a demonic possessing spirit of Jewish folklore.
The setup is, of course, similar to a host of D-level ghost stories that have become something like the B movies of our time; a new one seems to open either weekly or bi-weekly. In this case, the story is near identical to The Unborn, but that 2009 trifle by David S. Goyer was given a certain polish by some A-level talent (Gary Oldman, Idris Elba). The Possession is remarkable only in how brazenly it embraces the tired yet proven formula that these modern ghost tales deal in. And Bornedal, a talented filmmaker, can’t muster the energy to exert even the rumor of a unique, consistent visual rhythm and aesthetic, constantly cutting to black, and abruptly so, throughout the film’s first half and then abandoning this approach in the second.
Helplessly drowned in its own self-seriousness and grim gloominess, The Possession incorporates at least one fleck of rote allegorical interest: a child’s temperamental, sometimes violent reaction to divorce and new parental figures. But the weight of the allegory is less than skin deep, and there’s no sense of personal weight in a single frame of the film’s fleeting runtime. As pure, spooky spectacle, the film saves all of its energy up for the climactic battle in a super-sized physical therapy room, which is, admittedly, mildly thrilling. Its power, however, is mere sleight of hand—a jolt of relenting madness punctuating a deeply familiar ode to sober marital normality.