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‘The Exorcist: Believer 4K’ (review)

Universal

I have seen the film, The Exorcist: Believer AND it’s actually not bad. I liked it, go figure.

Now calm down hold on hear me out– or okay what I’m about to say isn’t going to calm you down much but you don’t have a choice anyway: I consider The Exorcist an overrated horror film and this– which ignores every subsequent movie in the franchise the way director David Gordon Green’s Halloween ignored every picture in between– by no means a gigantic drop in quality.

I wrote about my non-admiration for the first picture at length but to summarize: well done for what it is, using Friedkin’s trademark realism to sell us a supernatural bill of goods, but a straightforward take on good vs. evil, the strict orthodox Catholic line (with tacit approval from the actual church) with an important component in the proper depiction of evil missing: choice, or the willed act.

Swap out alcoholism or drug addiction or an act-of-God disaster for demonic possession and this would be the same movie, with maybe more special effects. The child at the center is strictly a victim; the real drama comes from the folks surrounding, with a question hanging over their collective heads– do they or do they not surrender to despair?

I could cite films that follow in a similar direction but push further with more subtlety: Michael Haneke’s Amour, or Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. The Exorcist is basically a fun ride and some excellent free publicity for the Catholic Church (till news of the real horror started seeping out); saying Believer takes the premise and heads in an interesting direction isn’t all that radical a statement.

Believer starts in Haiti with an earthquake that cuts young couple Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Sorenne’s (Tracy Graves) happiness short (the fact that Green begins with a natural disaster suggests he understands the true nature of Friedkin’s film and Blatty’s book), takes its time to show us the fruit of that tragedy: daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett), born out of her mother’s death. Now a single dad running a successful photography studio, Victor is also a persistently helicoptering parent who reluctantly allows Angela to go to her first-ever afterclass study session with best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) and doesn’t comes back that night. Angela and Katherine are found three days later thirty miles away, with burned feet and no recollection and a perturbing shift in their personalities.

And so the story goes. Green lavishes attention on the relationship between Victor and Angela, at one point observing the two play a game of hide-and-seek through their old Savannah house in a single sinuous shot. The setup leads you to expect a scary payoff but no– it’s a mere lighthearted family moment which (I suspect) to Green is never ‘mere.’ As in his Halloween sequel Green takes care to add detailing to his people; Odom’s Victor is especially fine– a quivering mass of hurt and fear hiding under the armor plating of paternal concern. When he tells Katherine’s parents that he ‘knows his daughter’ you tend to believe him, even if Angela did sneak out with Katherine that fateful night– he may not know or trust his daughter in every particular but does trust the bedrock of affection they share.

By contrast Katherine’s family isn’t given as much attention save for a throwaway sequence of Victor and his new ally Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn!) visiting her home some time after, and in a series of economically rendered shots suggests the horror of what’s been happening to their family in the meantime: front door left ajar, clothing scattered everywhere, parents huddled in their own respective corners shuddering. Chris confronts Katherine and–

A moment about Chris. Nice little coup casting Ellen Burstyn, who cynically put out the idea that she did it to fund her favorite charity (a scholarship program for young actors at Pace University) but here she’s giving the small role the same she’s given everything she’s played, her all. Chris is strong as she’s always been but there’s a hint of fanaticism to her fervor, of the Christian evangelist, down to a bestselling book recounting her experiences. “I’ve done research” she tells us more than once, so we’re set up for her confrontation with Katherine.

What happens after (skip this and the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) and perhaps the overall concept of Chris in the years after may be considered a spit in the eye of everyone who remembers her character fondly but I submit it’s actually a logical development: she’s been through a traumatic experience, she’s steeled herself over the years by reading about it and traveling the world talking to people, learning about it. “There are no atheists in trenches” as the saying goes, and she’s been converted, though in her own way: not necessarily Catholic but open to the possibilities of all religions with their own ways of dealing with possession.

As things turns out she may have prepared but it isn’t enough. Call it a shocking turn of events, and a hint that (unlike Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie in Green’s Halloween trilogy) no one’s safe, or guaranteed success; she does make a few suggestions to Victor that help, further hinting that Chris was on the right track and managed to pass the torch (of ideas, of spirit) along. Her character arc does end with some kind of resolution, a daring one for those who enjoy the film, a blasphemous one for those who don’t. I’d like to think she’ll play some kind of supporting role in the succeeding films but if this is where her story ends, I’d say it’s some kind of satisfying, in a sacrilegious blasphemous manner.

Ann Dowd as Ann is arguably Green’s most interesting creation, a believer who stands if not solidly with the Catholic institution at least sideways to it– believes in a few central concepts, is willing to improvise on details. May be dangerous suggesting the possibility of a ‘do it yourself’ faith, picking and choosing among various religions to jerry-rig a working one of one’s own, but considering how church authorities have behaved over the years, can one be blamed? “These folks have good ideas, but I can’t follow– or trust– everything they say”?

And yes, atheists are given short shrift. The presence of heart monitors and hypodermics say that the folks performing the exorcism do at least give medical science a passing nod, and Victor’s final gambit– involving a purple scarf– shows some faith in the power of psychology, or at least gestures with significance between two specific people. Not much, but some.

Visually and storytellingwise, Green riffs off the original exorcism (skip again if you haven’t seen)– two girls sitting up shackled instead of one girl tied down, a darkwood living room as opposed to a white wallpaper, a few phrases shouted from the Roman Ritual with some voodoo chants thrown in. From the strictly Catholic affair in the first film we’ve ended up with (as one skeptic has noted) an Avenger’s Assemble team of various faiths, a multidenominational spiritual strike force that admittedly sounds hilarious in the face of it– but why not? If one can accept the frankly absurd idea that a malevolent force can possess and torment a random girl or pair of girls what’s so silly about a rag-tag team of so-called experts stepping up in response?*

Most interesting variation I submit is introducing an explicit choice in the film (which girl to save?) to raise dramatic stakes, an implicit one included without charge (accept the demon’s terms or not?)– again possibly Green’s way of addressing if not actually fixing what I consider the original’s chief shortfall.

Is this scarier than the original?

‘What’s scary?’ I say, and submit that Youtube videos of sleeping folks where a face suddenly pops up can make your heart race even faster, but to what point? Easy to provoke a somatic response, you just need shock cuts and the volume turned up– what’s more challenging and more interesting in my book is a haunting sense of malevolence and the perverse, and I’ve even drawn up a list of films that I say accomplish that.

This isn’t one of them and to its credit it isn’t interested in trying; what Green wants to do is tell a human story, of people tried sorely, doing their desperate best with what they’ve got.

That’s what I believe, anyway.

Extras include commentary, featurettes, and interviews.

*(For the record, I’m more of the school of thinking that evil comes from us, not some vague offscreen prestidigitator who does parlor tricks and flings about split-pea soup (blessedly absent in this picture, tho the head spinning does pop up, spectacularly). We’re responsible for our own evil, and considering recent events in the world, I’d say we can teach the Devil a thing or two about inflicting cruelty and suffering on our fellow men.)

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