THE STORY – When his daughter, Angela, and her friend Katherine, show signs of demonic possession, it unleashes a chain of events that forces single father Victor Fielding to confront the nadir of evil. Terrified and desperate, he seeks out Chris MacNeil, the only person alive who’s witnessed anything like it before.
THE CAST – Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum & Ellen Burstyn
THE TEAM – David Gordon Green (Director/Writer) & Peter Sattler (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 111 Minutes
The original “Exorcist,” released in 1973 to box office success and critical acclaim, is still regarded as not only one of the best horror movies of all time but one of the greatest movies of all time, period. The late, great William Friedkin’s iconic horror film was even nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won two Oscars. It single-handily changed how audiences and the industry viewed the horror genre, spawning two not-as-well-received sequels, 1977’s “Exorcist II: The Heretic” and “The Exorcist III” in 1990. Countless other horror films each owe a debt to the film’s lasting cultural impact as many have tried over the years to replicate its success either by trying to put their own spin on stories of demonic possession or paying straight homage to it altogether. One such admirer is David Gordon Green, the once heralded versatile director of indie films such as “George Washington” and “Snow Angels,” who has in recent years found commercial success (after a string of various modest hits and misses) working with indie producer Jason Blum on the new trilogy of “Halloween” films. Despite mixed reviews from critics, the financial success of those three films must’ve inflated Green and Blum’s egos enough to make them believe the formula could work again with Friedkin’s masterpiece by developing a legacyquel to the original film fifty years later. Unfortunately, for all those involved, William Friedkin is most likely turning in his grave as “The Exorcist: Believer” can’t hold a candle to what was accomplished all those years ago despite some decent choices and best intentions.
Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is a Haitian immigrant who, many years ago, had to face a difficult choice of either saving his wife or their unborn daughter. Years later, his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) is fully grown up and has a close relationship with her loving but overprotective father. When she expresses a desire to spend time after school with her classmate friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum), Victor is initially reluctant but knows he must allow his daughter to be her own person outside of the time they spend together. However, when the girls venture into the woods together, they aren’t seen again for nearly three days. With no signs of abuse or memory of what happened during the time they were missing, the girls start acting strange in a way that’s horrifying and unexplainable by modern science and psychology. Victor, along with his nurse neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd), seeks out Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the one person who has confronted such evil before when her own daughter fell under demonic possession fifty years ago and lived to tell the tale, despite being estranged from her daughter all these years later. Along with Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz), the town’s pastor (Raphael Sbarge), and others within the community, it will take the strength and belief systems of all to expel this demon and save the two girls.
“The Exorcist: Believer” is at its best when it’s not drawing comparisons to the original film, which is simply impossible given that’s what the whole point of this movie’s existence is in the first place: to prey upon our nostalgia for the original horror classic and use it to garner profit at the box office instead of crafting something as new and terrifying as the original did in its time. One can see right through the facade of what Blum and Green are attempting when the role of Chris MacNeil, featuring the return of 90-year-old Ellen Burstyn in one of her most defining roles (she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role back in 1973), is used so sparingly and with little impact on the overall story. Her inclusion feels forced and unnecessary when it should feel as essential as Jamie Lee Curtis was to the new “Halloween” films. Why MacNeil hasn’t seen her daughter in many years is lazily explained, and how she comes face-to-face with the antagonist is underwhelming, employing one too many callbacks to the original film in a single scene that isn’t interested in crafting something fresh and exciting for a new generation. The foul-mouthed spewing, head-spinning, cross-stabbing antics of the demon are on full display again but can’t quite capture the realistic horror and intensity as the original did.
“The Exorcist: Believer” does, at one point, tap into some relatable real-world horror for about fifteen minutes when the girls go missing. Leslie Odom Jr. brings some grounded dramatic work to his performance to help drive the desperation of a parent searching for his child, and this is aided by the town’s involvement in the search, delivering a sense of scale to the story in contrast to the original’s single domestic setting. When the girls are found, and the doctors are analyzing them, Green and co-writer Peter Sattler’s screenplay never veers into comedic territory (something a lot of modern horror films will try to do as a way to break the tension) but instead keeps the stakes believable as Victor fears his daughter may need to be placed in intensive psychiatric care before they inevitably evolve into the supernatural.
Once the film reaches its grand finale, the exorcism of both girls, Green’s reliance on practical effects, the emotion of Victor’s connection to his daughter, and the creation of a haunting atmosphere backed by dark images and a layered soundscape all help give the film’s final act a scene that, if it weren’t for comparisons to the original film, would stand on its own as a stellar piece of work. There are some well-timed jump scares, but “The Exorcist” was never about using tricks of the horror genre to terrify its audience. It was the human story of a parent watching their child go through something unimaginable that nestled itself deep inside the audience’s souls, so much so that some fainted in the aisles and left with an imprint of the film’s evocative imagery and sounds forever on their minds. “The Exorcist: Believer” never comes even somewhat close to capturing such a feeling, and part of that is because many of its gimmicks feel familiar. And although Leslie Odom Jr. does a respectable job of being our guiding light through the darkness, the film’s lack of development for the other characters involved in the finale hinders what could’ve been an even more potent moment of a community coming together despite their differences to vanquish a common enemy. Who are some of these people? How did they end up here in the first place? What are their arcs? At nearly two hours, the film doesn’t have enough time to delve into such questions and flesh out each of these characters, but perhaps that’s something the filmmakers should’ve considered before they decided to go down this path in the first place.
“The Exorcist: Believer” will eventually be followed up with another sequel titled “The Exorcist: Deceiver,” and that’s how many will feel walking out of this latest, ungodly installment in a franchise which never should’ve been one in the first place. They will feel deceived into believing a legacyquel was necessary or that it could ever live up to the greatness of the original film. It should’ve been left alone, but Hollywood sometimes can’t help itself and will repeatedly show they’re willing to go back to the well one too many times and drink contaminated water instead of seeking a new, fresh one instead. “The Exorcist: Believer” would’ve been a much better film if it didn’t have to feature elements from the original movie to justify its mere existence. David Gordon Green crafts a convincing enough atmosphere, and Odom Jr. plus the two girls, Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum, give all they can to hook the audience and make this a horror film worth your time, but it’s doubtful many will emerge from the theater as a believer (or compelled by the power of Christ let’s say) in what Green and Blum have forced upon us this time.