The new horror thriller The Possession is about a little girl who requires an exorcism to remove the evil dybbuk inhabiting her body, and it opens with a title card informing us that the film is "based on a true story." You know what I'm aching to see one of these days? An exorcism-themed entertainment that isn't based on a true story. Can you imagine how much fun these things could be if we weren't consistently asked to believe in them?
That's not to say that director Ole Bornedal's outing isn't a good time. It would just be a better one if the movie's claims to authenticity weren't the phoniest things about it. Whatever your beliefs regarding demonic spirits - such as the spirit of Jewish folklore that The Possession's grade-schooler Emily (Natasha Calis) unwittingly picks up at a yard sale (!) - too much about this scare flick feels fraudulent, from the awkward CGI effects to the forced overacting of the secondary performers to Emily's father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) reacting to early warning signs with almost obdurate obtuseness. (When Dad discovers Emily, in her bedroom, engulfed in a veritable tornado of buzzing moths, he calls an exterminator when any reasonable person would be calling for an arsonist.) Bornedal's movie is by no means the dopiest of the exorcism tales I've seen; all things considered, Juliet Snowden's and Stiles White's script is actually pretty sharp, and it features several truly spine-tingling lines, as when Emily asks for another plate of French fries and the malevolent presence inside her hisses, "She's still hungry." But as with its fellow genre experiments, The Possession's "true story" introduction seems a too-convenient means of accounting for distracting plot holes and lapses in logic and ironic twists that, like the film's climactic car accident, just seem contrived. I enjoyed the movie; I just didn't buy it.
Still, I've certainly viewed enough offerings of The Possession's type to know that my enjoyment wasn't a given, and Bornedal pulls off some exquisite freak-outs here, with marvelously unexpected blackouts and insidiously creepy sound effects employed throughout. (There's a particularly satisfying bit involving the fate of a smarmy dentist, and the scene that found Emily searching her throat with a flashlight effectively worked both my shudder and gag reflexes.) And happily, even when you don't believe in the movie, you do believe in Morgan and Calis. With his laid-back charisma and adorably rumpled, hangdog charm, Morgan is sensationally touching as an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances; he grounds the fantastical goings-on in specific, life-sized emotions. As for Calis, she seems to possess (sorry) an almost startling amount of talent, attacking Emily's lightning-quick shifts in mood and physicality with a subtle, wrenching power that actresses three times her age - to say nothing of actress Linda Blair - should envy. Kyra Sedgwick, as Emily's brittle mom, and the Hassidic reggae artist Matisyahu, as her inevitable exorcist, lend fine support, but this is Calis' picture all the way, and in a just world, The Possession would net its young star a well-deserved Oscar nomination. True story.
As one of three backwoods brothers peddling Depression-era moonshine in director John Hillcoat's Lawless, Tom Hardy is an exceptionally eloquent mumbler. His Forrest Bondurant rarely speaks above a bullfrog-y whisper, and much of his dialogue is really just a series of guttural grunts, but the actor is so thunderously expressive here as a principled man of ill repute that you're enraptured by his every hushed, monosyllabic utterance. (This year, it's both a thrill and a relief to see Hardy again employed so well after being buried by his Dark Knight Rises headgear and waylaid by that ludicrous This Means War script.) And I'm sorry, but whoever came up with the idea to pair Hardy opposite Jessica Chastain, who plays Lawless' resident good-girl-with-the-checkered-past, deserves a medal of some kind; her signature, ever-astounding blend of delicacy and strength meshes with Hardy's soulful brawniness with a perfection that seems otherworldly. Despite its somewhat dawdling pace and occasional narrative shortcomings - such as the strange disappearance of Gary Oldman's violent gangster, a figure who vanishes right when he starts to feel truly essential to the proceedings - there are actually plenty of other reasons to catch Hillcoat's gripping, visually evocative period drama, which finds its bootleggers attempting to stay one step ahead of Guy Pearce's sadistic federal agent. (Not the least of them is that it's the first movie in what seems like forever to feature a first-rate performance by Shia LaBeouf, of all people, whose turn as a perpetually dismissed weakling is terrifically tender and moving.) But Lawless is never finer than when Hardy and/or Chastain - principally "and" - are allowed to command the screen; together, they make whatever quibbles you have about the film's overall presentation feel positively moot ... and make your mind reel thinking of potential projects you're now dying to see them tackle. Both are accomplished stage actors; is it too much to hope for a Streetcar Named Desire revival that finds Hardy's Stanley Kowalski matching wits against Chastain's Blanche Du Bois?
CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER
In her big-screen and TV roles, Rashida Jones has been many wonderful things - funny, clever, ravishing, effortlessly empathetic. But generally speaking, the one thing this beautiful, gifted comedienne really hasn't been allowed to be is interesting, an unfortunate situation that has been blessedly rectified by the romantic comedy Celeste & Jesse Forever, which Jones co-wrote with actor Will McCormack. A scruffy indie about a pair of married best friends (Jones and Andy Samberg) who decide, for little apparent reason, to get divorced, director Lee Toland Krieger's comedy is a tad unfocused, and I mean that in the literal sense; striving for naturalism, the movie's frequently shaky, blurry cinematography, ironically, only calls attention to the movie's movie-ness. (For his next birthday, I pray someone purchases Krieger the gift of a tripod.) And a few of its comic conceits play merely as conceits, such as Celeste's grudging relationship with a twitter-brained pop star played, believably enough, by Emma Roberts. There are, however, far worse ways to while away 90 minutes than in the company of Jones and Samberg, whose chemistry and quick-witted rapport here are sensationally appealing, and with supporting performers as eminently likable as Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Elijah Wood, Chris Messina, Rebecca Dayan, Mad Men's Rich Sommer, and McCormack himself, a sleazy hoot as Celeste's (eventual) pot dealer. Plus, with Jones taking on a complex, unpredictable character whose mask of well-groomed sanity disguises a frazzled bundle of neuroses, Celeste & Jesse Forever finally allows us to see just how good an actor - how nuanced and thoughtful and heartbreaking - this one-time The Office performer actually is. Jim dumping Karen for Pam now makes even less sense.