Part ghost story, part social commentary, director Marcin Wrona’s Demon offers plenty of appeal while remaining frustratingly elusive. The stellar performance from Itay Tiran, a genuinely creepy aesthetic, and a healthy dose of dark humor keep this possession drama interesting throughout. Unfortunately, the final act is a mess, which makes for an arbitrary and unsatisfying conclusion.
Piotr (Tiran) is a young man in love. He has dreams of living happily-ever-after with his fiancée, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), and living on her father’s farm in the Polish countryside. Piotr arrives in town and immediately starts making renovations in advance of the massive wedding that Zaneta’s father, Zgmunt (Andrzej Grabowski), has meticulously planned. Things take a decidedly creepy turn, however, when some errant excavator work unearths a human skeleton in the backyard. Unwilling to upset Zaneta, Piotr hurriedly covers the bones and turns his attention to the ceremony.
What follows is a wedding reception that makes the marriage sequence from the The Deer Hunter feel truncated in comparison. The entire village convenes, bringing together a collection of familiar archetypes, including a priest, a doctor, and a professor. As the evening unwinds, liquor is consumed and secrets are exposed, as Piotr is slowly possessed by the spirit of a missing girl named Hana. Yeah, don’t ever cover up bones you find in the backyard. Bad idea.
Wrona is obviously a filmmaker who understands the importance of public rituals, as his previous film, The Christening, focuses on family revelations leading up to a baptism. These communal announcements solidify our place in society, yes, but they also initiate a new set of rules and behaviors by which to abide. While Demon functions perfectly well as a supernatural story about demonic possession, it also exposes the superficiality and pretense of the ceremonies we hold so dear. It’s less important to help a poor lad escape the influence of a malevolent spirit than to explain his erratic behavior to the neighbors. Much dark humor is mined from this awkwardness, as Zgmunt struggles to convince drunken partygoers that Piotr is “just nervous.”
Taken from Jewish mythology, the story of the Dybbuk (a displaced soul that possesses a living vessel) translates easily to the modern world. At a time when everyone is consumed by social media and casual interactions, secret identities and hidden agendas are the common currency. Zgmunt laments that Piotr and Zaneta decided to marry after only “a few Skype calls.” Piotr is the quintessential ‘outsider’ who rides into town and unwittingly exposes everyone’s dirty secrets. Wrona and his co-writer, Pawel Maslona, cleverly use Piotr’s demonic possession to see how far each character will go to protect themselves from scrutiny.
Visually and atmospherically, Wrona gets all the devilish details just right. He films most of his characters in the foreground, surrounding them with a landscape that existed long before they arrived, and will endure long after they have gone. Indeed, it’s this transitory nature that makes Demon so creepy. The icy-cold soundtrack adds to the creepiness, as does the ever-present rain that chills each character to the bone. The brilliance of Itay Tiran allows Wrona to assume more danger than he actually needs to show, and when the demon finally arrives, it’s genuinely unsettling.
The problem with Demon, and why it will leave many viewers unsatisfied, is its scattershot final act. Closure may be a precious commodity in the world of indie thrillers, but a story’s conclusion shouldn’t feel arbitrary, either. Here, Wrona and Maslona seem completely befuddled by how to finish things. Instead of tying things together, they simply ask more questions and hope it makes their film mysterious and existential. While the social subtext may be delightfully rich and subtle, the primary storyline begs for something more concrete. Too often, Piotr disappears in the final act, as secondary characters stumble around looking for clues or simply talking to themselves. For all of its outstanding world building and mood setting, it feels like Demon simply… ends.
Demon uniquely connects atmosphere and social context by using a fairly-standard demonic possession storyline. That it succeeds so well is a credit to Wrona’s observant eye and Tiran’s uninhibited performance. It’s a shame, then, that the ending is such a clunker. Perhaps no conclusion could felt sufficient after the ultra-creepy buildup, but it shouldn’t feel like a cheat, either. Demon is worth the effort, but don’t expect to exorcise your curiosity when it’s over.
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