Are exorcisms culturally specific? The concept behind The Possession, a solid, Jewish-inflected B-movie riff on The Exorcist from director Ole Bornedal, can’t help but leave you wondering. Sure, a Catholic priest can attempt to take care of a demon, but when your child’s inhabited by a dybbuk — a malevolent spirit from Jewish folklore — you might need someone who can specialize. At one point in the film, frantic father Clyde Brenek (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) drives a few hundred miles from the suburb in which he, his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and two children live to Borough Park, Brooklyn, to locate a rebbe who can help his family. It’s a supernatural argument for the benefit of living in more diverse communities. The dybbuk in question has been captured and imprisoned in the old, engraved box that Clyde buys at a yard sale for his youngest daughter Emily (Natasha Calis). The audience has already seen the muttering entity, which is able to inflict physical harm regardless of whether its victims open the box, wreak havoc on its previous owner, but Emily sees only a mysterious find with which she can furnish her empty room in her dad’s new house. Bornedal is a Danish director who’s gone back and forth between Hollywood and his homeland. He ended up remaking his own theatrical debut — a 1994 thriller about a Copenhagen law student working as a late-shift watchman at a morgue — into the identically titled and inevitably not as good 1997 film Nightwatch with Ewan McGregor. His specialty is putting an arch, unexpected twist on genre in films such as The Substitute, in which a 6th grade class realizes their chipper new teacher is an alien, and Just Another Love Story, a noir in which a married man allows himself to be mistaken for the fiancé of a wealthy woman who’s suffering from memory loss after an accident. The narrative running alongside the paranormal events unfolding in The Possession is about divorce and how it can affect children. While teenager daughter Hannah (Madison Davenport) deals with her parents’ breakup and her mother’s subsequent new relationship with orthodontist Brett (Grant Show) with disaffected detachment, Emily still holds on to a tremulous hope that the two will get back together. When she does figure out how to open the box, which turns out to be filled with strange keepsakes, dead moths and a creepy, foggy old mirror, the behavioral changes brought on by the dybbuk are interpreted by those in her life as an adolescent response to the domestic shakeup. Emily grows moody and distant, she spends a lot of time in her room and she acts out at school. Her mother takes her to a child psychologist, not an exorcist. The Possession is produced by Sam Raimi, and, at its best, has some of the throwback appeal of Raimi’s last theatrical release, Drag Me to Hell. Its intent is not ironic, but its creepiness, which includes eyeballs rolling back in their sockets, clouds of insects appearing around the house and a little girl suddenly speaking like a guttural adult, is the kind that provokes nervous giggles and the clutching of the person next to you, not nightmares. When Clyde tracks his feral demon-daughter through the bowels of a hospital, the audience at my screening let out a knowing sound as he approached an open door leading to a dark room — and let out pleased laughter when he used the paltry light of his cell phone to see just what sort of worst-case stuff was stored in there. Morgan gives a sturdy performance as a man whose career as a college basketball coach has taken precedence over his family, and who’s only now realizing that he’s about to lose those he loves as a result. But it’s Calis who steals the show as the possessed girl: She moves between ominous, dead-eyed glares and flickers of vulnerability, letting slip some foreboding tears right before the dybbuk makes her do something awful. Also showing off an unexpected screen presence is the musician Matisyahu, who plays the soft-spoken and slightly unconventional son of the rebbe from who Clyde seeks help. Tall, thin and quietly authoritative, Matisyahu’s character Tzadok comes with Clyde when no one else will help him because he believe it’s his duty to save a life when given the opportunity. He provides a nice alternative to the Father Merrin type — you know, the kind of guy who has no patience for hugging things out until the whole getting-the-dybbuk-back-in-the-box ceremony is taken care of. And there’s no better time to watch Matisyahu try than the current dog days of August. This variation on the demon child subgenre has enough of the familiar and the new to be a decently good time at the movies.
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