‘Exorcist’ Review: It Takes A Village Of ‘Believers’ To Combat Evil In Unapologetically Vile But Fascinating Legacy Horror

12 mins read

There are myriad talking entry points to “Exorcist: Believer”—David Gordon Green’s latest horror legacy sequel and the follow-up to his “Halloween” trilogy. For one, it’s awful, but it’s also fascinating, chock-full of thought-provoking ideas— impossible to fully disregard even when the film goes off the rails. One finds themselves repulsed by the film and yet captivated by its concepts, both in their originality and how often their bold, sometimes baffling swings miss the mark so wildly. For two, it’s ugly as hell, but the dreadfulness is the point. In the dark spirit of William Friedkin’s arresting and unapologetic “The Exorcist” original, not to mention the filmmaker’s own unrepentant mien, Green is unashamed about how vulgar and obscene his film can be.

For three, that insane commitment is impressively unwavering, and for four, unlike the “Halloween” (at least the first one, 2018, the good one), it’s not about trauma. And there’s a whole school of horror audiences that have seemingly renounced trauma and emotional horror; “enough with the exploitation of abuse for your films!” they say. But capital T trauma is humanistic, rooted in real, relatable, primal psychological pain— the stuff of true terror. So Green largely forgoes the trauma of the past, instead examining the trauma of the present moment— full of intense panic and histrionic frenzy that would make the original ‘Exorcist’ proud. That doesn’t make it good, or even tolerable, but Green’s not afraid to dig about in the nauseating putridness of foul realness, and there’s something admirably about that even when the hysteria of the film feels like an abhorrent, blood-goop-stained cudgel (remind you of someone? Perhaps 1973’s “The Exorcist?”)

Moreover, like “Halloween Kills” and “Halloween Ends,” both of which are unpleasant, like it or not, Green’s terror movies are about something—many thematic things, even— which is more than one can often say about a lot of horror films, so there is an aspiration to say something about the world, people and the suffering humanity often faces.

OK, the film itself begins with a prologue set 13 years in the past. Visiting Haiti with his pregnant wife, Victor Fieldin (Leslie Odom Jr.) faces catastrophe, tragedy, and a horrible (but compelling) moral choice: save his daughter or wife; the doctors tell him they cannot rescue both (does it feel uncomfortable and dubious that white filmmakers seemingly exploit the tropes of Haitian mysticism for their horror film, why yes it does, thanks for asking).

Exorcist: Believer

Cut to the present day, and Fieldin is a single father living in a suburban community set seemingly in the small town next door to Haddonfield—seriously, it looks identical aesthetically, down to the same way red/blue police lights fall at night and filled with the same mix of non-actors and actors with the faces of character actors, not a star in sight. Fieldin is very protective of his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett), but as rebellious, inquisitive teenagers do—this one particularly inspired to somehow connect with the mother she never knew—she sneaks off into the woods with her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill). Three days later, following their parent’s panicked lather about their whereabouts—Katherine’s parents played by Norbert Leo Butz and Country music Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles—the girls return, bruised, blistered to a ghastly degree, and with no memory of what happened to them.

You guessed it; they’ve been demonically possessed, and they get thrown in mental institutions, and this crazy, unreal chain of events unleashes terror and brutally visceral human desperation (that is sweaty, melodramatic, and messy, but if you have kids, relatable).

Two narratives branch off from here, both of them tied to skepticism, belief systems, finding faith, and even fated destiny. The non-believing and distrusting Fieldin—cynical about all the fanatical Churchgoing white people in his municipality— has to turn to the community around him as a support system to get through this calamity—a nurse, neighbor, and former almost-nun played by an excellent Ann Dowd, among many others—and he goes to the O.G. source. Yes, eventually, he is compelled, by uncanny happenstance, to track down Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn from the original ‘Exorcist’), who is still forever altered by what happened to her daughter Regan five decades earlier.

MacNeil became a famous author and something of an Exorcist specialist by publicizing her ordeal of suffering, but in the process, Regan despised her for doing so and became so estranged that her whereabouts are unknown.

Exorcist: Believer

“Exorcist: Believer” then becomes about faith and belief, not in god, mind you, at least not for Fieldin, but about supernatural evil and taking your enemy seriously if you hope to defeat it. “Exorcist: Believer” also becomes a film about people, neighbors, and commonality, which is provocative—when was the last time you saw a supernatural possession movie about community?? Similar to some of the notions expressed in his previous trilogy Green and his writers— Peter Sattler, with ‘Halloween’ writers Scott Teems and Danny McBride given seemingly crucial “story by” credits— seem to say we are unified by our similarities more than we are divided by our differences and dissimilar beliefs because it takes a village to protect those we love and overcome wickedness.

This notion is intriguing, quaint, idealistic, and ambitious—when was the last time a film took a moment to say our neighbors could be annoying af and yet afford us great comfort and empathy?—but perhaps more importantly, also kind of ridiculous. Especially when ‘Believer’ seems to recruit The Avengers of different community faith leaders to join the fold (I wish I was joking). Raphael Sbarge plays the pastor of Katherine’s parent’s devout Baptist church, Okwui Okpokwasili stars as a Haitian root doctor (hahahaha!), and Fieldin’s boxing buddy, who is also a speaking-in-tongues Pentecostal preacher is played by Danny McCarthy. There’s also, of course, Burnstyn as MacNeil—sadly kind of sidelined in the film—and last but not least, obviously standing in for Friedkin’s Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is the familiar-looking Catholic priest Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), who can’t join this Exorcist supergroup because his Dionysus Cardinals forbid it, but reluctantly joins nonetheless, in a moment that feels hilariously dumb and perhaps not unlike Captain America finally arriving to battle after a crisis of conscience.

So yes, absorbing and interesting ideas are sometimes (often?) rendered impossibly clumsy in their clunky execution, which, yes, leads to at least a few moments of unintentional laughter (not like the last two parts of ‘Halloween’).

Filmmaking-wise, Green is classically patient until he’s not, a mix of elegant, simple camera work juxtaposed next to blunt jump scares and other grating and infuriatingly graceless filmic elements (An exasperating example: clever transitions are such a lost art in filmmaking. ‘Believer’ resurrects them often, yay! And they’re cunningly built around sound—one of the secret weapons in Green’s toolkit, inventive!—but they too soon become overused, overwrought and maddeningly bashing, boo!).

Exorcist: Believer

‘Believer’ is pretty gross and nasty at times, too (period blood attacks, lines about “cuntery!” and other sickening sh*t). But let’s not forget just how much “The Exorcist” in 1973 shocked and churned audiences’ stomachs at the time. For better and for worse, Green hasn’t forgotten that quality and tries to stay true to them, the difference being what shocks us today is much different than what did five decades ago.

Make no mistake, most audiences will find ‘Believer’ revolting (again, the whole point). It’s fascinating in the way it swings for the fences, is full of conviction, and is overflowing with stimulating ideas about acceptance, denial, community, and more, many of them engaging, many of them handled with no sense of taste (to which Green would probably argue is what Friedkin’s film did; good taste be cast out!).

Perhaps what engrosses me so much—at least conceptually on a bizarre intellectual level—is how “Halloween Kills,” “Halloween Ends,” and “Exorcist: Believer” share at least one major trait. They either cannot distinguish the fine line between fearlessness and bad taste, or they just don’t care, mowing down that division line; audiences be damned, we’ll bludgeon you into feeling something! These are pungent, sulfur-suffused choices and arguably pretty terrible and discomfiting ones, but one sometimes cannot help but admire just how far and how nasty Green will go in the name of terrorizing an audience and one-upping the revulsion of utter dismay. In many ways, Green gets the legacy of what ‘Exorcist’ entails just right, but whoo boy, it really comes at a horrid price. [C-]

‘Exorcist’ Review: It Takes A Village Of ‘Believers’ To Combat Evil In Unapologetically Vile But Fascinating Legacy Horror

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