VERDICT: It takes a village to perform an exorcism, and it takes the power of Ann Dowd and Ellen Burstyn to make this familiar material compelling.
Demonic-possession chillers are not usually considered to be faith-based movies, but what else can we call them?
David Gordon Green brings very little that’s new to The Exorcist: Believer, but he does at least expand the genre beyond its usual status as a Catholic superhero movie; it takes a village to dispel demons, and this exorcism requires the presence of not just a priest (and a devout former novitiate) but also a Protestant pastor and a pagan healer.
Beyond this new wrinkle, Believer demonstrates once again that, over the last five decades, every film that has tried to follow in the spider-walking footsteps of William Friedkin’s legendary masterpiece can never touch the power of the original.
It’s damning with faint praise that Green and his co-writers do better by The Exorcist than they ever did by Halloween, but the shape of the plot, the nature of the scares, and the essence of the material remains a copy of a copy of a copy of what Friedkin and William Peter Blatty so unforgettably accomplished.
Once again, the film opens in a steamy, ancient locale, but this time it’s Haiti instead of Iraq; married photographers Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Serenne (Tracey Graves) are on assignment when an earthquake hits, trapping the pregnant Serenne in the rubble of their hotel. Doctors inform Victor that they could save Serenne or the baby, but not both; cut to 13 years later, where Victor is living in a small Georgia town, raising his young daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett).
Angela pines for a connection to the mother she never knew, so much so that she and classmate Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) sneak off to the woods after school to perform a ritual to contact the dead — and then they disappear for three days.
When Angela and Katherine return, they both think that only a few hours have passed, and they have no memory of what really happened. But before long, the girls are acting creepy and psychotic in a manner that audiences will recognize from the-devil-made-me-do-it movies.
Atheist Victor refuses to believe there’s a non-medical reason for what’s happening, but when neighbor and nurse Ann (Ann Dowd) gives him the book that Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) wrote about her experiences 50 years ago, he opens up to the idea that an exorcism is required.
The Exorcist: Believer could very well become the first R-rated movie to get the thumbs-up from the American evangelical community since The Passion of the Christ: when Katherine’s church-going parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) start talking about Jesus and Satan and Hell and possession, the movie takes them absolutely seriously, even if Victor is inclined to shrug them off.
And despite the best efforts of Katherine’s pastor (Raphael Sbarge) and the others involved in the exorcism, it’s going to take Robert coming around (he’s one of several candidates to be the “Believer” of the title) to really bring the ritual home.
As a horror film, The Exorcist: Believer isn’t especially horrific; familiarity is the enemy of fright, and it offers no moves that audiences won’t see coming well in advance. It’s the overqualified cast that provides whatever power it delivers, particularly Dowd and the somewhat ill-used Burstyn.
The latter offers more than stunt casting; Burstyn brings a mix of world-weariness and fiery conviction that provides a much-needed boost, as does Dowd’s palpable empathy. Her character’s faith feels lit from within rather than merely pious showboating.
The casting directors have filled out an extraordinary ensemble — Sbarge, Broadway veterans Odom, Jr. and Butz, musician Nettles, dancer Okwui Okpokwasili (as the healer) — all of whom carve out a few moments for themselves along the way even when the script gives them very little. Young Jewett and O’Neill certainly commit themselves to their performances, even though the roles require them to be vessels for horrifying makeup, visual effects, and overdubbed voices.
Believer does make effective use of its Georgia locations, with Michael Simmonds’ camera making this bucolic setting as unsettling as Georgetown was in the original, and the score by Amman Abbassi and frequent Green collaborator David Wingo finds its own creepy footing, even as it inevitably quotes “Tubular Bells” at particular moments.
While Exorcist II: The Heretic and The Exorcist Part III have garnered their own cult audiences over the years (the less said about Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin’s prequel attempts, the better), none of these follow-ups have ever succeeded in living outside of the shadow of the original. The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t, either, but Dowd and Burstyn’s performances will endure even as the rest of it fades into the memory hole of unnecessary sequels.