The Movie Waffler New to VOD - THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER | The Movie Waffler


Two young girls begin behaving strangely after disappearing for three days.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: David Gordon Green

Starring: Leslie Odom Jr, Ellen Burstyn, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz

The Exorcist: Believer poster

After making a dog's dinner of the Halloween series, director David Gordon Green is now at the helm of a trilogy of sequels to another 1970s horror classic – William Friedkin's The Exorcist. Nothing about the director's filmography would suggest he's a good fit for this, but then that was the case with Halloween, and look how that turned out. Terribly.

Well the good news is, The Exorcist: Believer isn't terrible. It's just not a very good Exorcist movie, or a very good horror movie in general. The only good scene in Green's three Halloween movies had nothing to do with horror, it was a simple scene of two of its characters awkwardly flirting, the sort of scene Green had done very well prior to his unlikely reinvention as a horror filmmaker. It's perhaps no surprise that The Exorcist: Believer is at its best when it's not dealing strictly with horror.

The Exorcist: Believer review

After a rather exploitative prologue set during the Haiti earthquake of 2010 in which photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom. Jr) loses his wife but saves his unborn child, we cut to present day Georgia where we find Victor doing a seemingly good job of raising his now 12-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett). When Angela asks if she can hang out with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) after school, Victor is initially reluctant but acquiesces to her request. Bad move. The two girls fail to return home having last been spotted heading into the woods. Unbeknownst to their parents, the girls conducted a ritual in the hopes of contacting the spirit of Angela's mother (wait, didn't we already see this movie?) but unleashed something far more malevolent. When the girls are found three days later, they've undergone a dramatic personality change, not unlike that experienced by a certain Regan MacNeil 50 years ago.

This first half of the movie is more of a thriller than a horror movie, focussed on the search for the missing girls and serving as an allegory for the current divisions in American society. Blame is passed between the two sets of parents, and there's an underlying racial element to the distrust Katherine's parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) harbour towards Victor. As an atheist in the Bible Belt, Victor finds himself clashing with his religious neighbours regarding the best way to deal with his situation.

But Green doesn't simply set up a lazy narrative where an educated atheist clashes with a bunch of religious rubes. His neighbours may have beliefs that Victor can't get on board with, at least initially, but they genuinely have his best interests at heart. To defeat evil, they'll ultimately be forced to put their differences aside and work together. It's a reminder that Green is himself from the part of America disparagingly known as "flyover country" and his best movies are set in that part of the world and display a warmth and understanding of its maligned people. Characters are introduced in an antagonist manner only to later become heroic, like a neighbour played by Ann Dowd. When we meet her first she's complaining about Victor leaving his bins out and we immediately think of the many online clips of "Karens" confronting African-Americans over such trivial matters. But then we learn of the hurt she's been carrying inside her for most of her life. Similarly, an Evangelical preacher (Raphael Sbarge) strays far from the opportunistic caricature we expect.

The Exorcist: Believer review

This humanity is extended to the returning figure of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). Unlike Green's ludicrous reinvention of Halloween's Laurie Strode as a gun nut, Chris's experiences have lead her to look for the best in people. She returns to fight evil but not with a pump action shotgun, rather with a strength of faith.

There's a reverence for the source material here that was sorely absent from Green's take on Halloween. Gone are the comic relief characters and over the top gore, though Green's newfound love of bathing scenes in the light from cop cars remains. Burstyn's MacNeil feels like a natural evolution of the character in a way Laurie Strode never did under Green's command (for that you need to return to the under-rated Halloween: H20).

The trouble with The Exorcist: Believer is that while there's a respect for the original film, it lacks the authenticity devout Catholic William Peter Blatty brought to the project with his screenplay. Having a movie about possession written by someone who actually believed in such things gave the narrative an extra edge, and even the most committed non-believer was sucked in as a result. It was a movie that asked its audience to come to it, something very few mainstream movies are allowed to do today unless they're made by Christoper Nolan. Modern Hollywood's folly is that it's always chasing the audience rather than guiding it. This can be seen in how this version of The Exorcist is a considerably less Catholic movie than the original. Chasing America's current love of faith-based movies, the film cynically introduces a range of characters across the Christian spectrum in the hopes of latching onto the sort of lucrative business we recently saw performed by Sound of Freedom. The climax sees Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals all come together like a Christian Avengers to tackle the demon in their respective manners (were it not for America's contempt for all things Russian we'd probably have some Orthodox representation here too). Another sign that the film hopes to capture a Christian audience is in the notable lack of the sort of foul-mouthed insults hurled by Linda Blair in the original. In stark contrast to the gore of his Halloween movies, Green shies away from showing the effects of Angela's first period, because if there's one thing Christians are uncomfortable with it's the female reproductive system. Unable to simply show a cutaway of a bloodstained bedsheet, Green has Odom Jr. ham it up with an over-the-top reaction as he sniffs the air.

The Exorcist: Believer review

In its home stretch, The Exorcist: Believer comes up against the problem of trying to present an exorcism in a novel fashion. At this point it's like trying to make a shark movie. You're never going to do it as well as that movie from the '70s, and it's been done so many times that it's never going to seem fresh. Linda Blair's head-spinning antics have been parodied so often in the intervening decades that any attempt to replicate them simply comes off as silly and hokey.

I have no idea where Green plans to take this story over the course of the next two movies, but unlike Halloween, at least it's a franchise he seems interested in working within. At best we might get some reminders that Green was once very good at making the sort of movies it's become increasingly difficult to get made in America today.

The Exorcist: Believer
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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