Thursday 5 October 2023

Review: The Exorcist: Believer

Year: 2023

Director: David Gordon Green

Screenplay:  David Gordon Green, Peter Sattler

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

Synopsis is here:

Halfway through The Exorcist: Believer, Chris McNeil (Burstyn), the mother whose 12-year-old girl Regan fell victim to demonic possession, claims that she was never allowed into the room during her daughter's possession due to the “damn patriarchy”. In the screening that I was in, the line gained an audible “right on” cheer. In wrestling, such a moment could be considered a “cheap pop”.  It is a tawdry way to incite a reaction from a crowd. The vulgarity becomes evident later in the film when a grim incident befouls Chris, a mother who had suffered so much in the original film is dismissively wasted in this new legacy sequel 50 years on. The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t give a toss about feminism. It barely cares about the women in its narrative. But it knows that simply referring is enough.

There isn't much more to say about William Friedkin’s 1973 seminal adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist that hasn’t already been said. Its reputation proceeds it. A film that now constantly tops the best horror ever lists. Its infamy entails a troubled production, rating controversies and initial mixed reactions from critics. 50 years on, the aura surrounding the film has never quelled. It remains a fascinating film which despite its intentions, has allowed the contents of the production to be argued and debated for years. Its success also allowed the studios to greenlight a multitude of sequels and prequels to mixed reactions.

The Exorcist: Believer has been delivered to audiences by David Gordon Green. A director whose filmography has a whiplash effect if you read it too fast. When he first appeared on the scene, Green was touted as the new Terrance Malick. His early films were small-town indie darlings, well-loved by the critical faculty. 2008 marked the release of the stoner comedy Pineapple Express and Green’s “loosely goosy” era with the director’s changing to television sitcoms such as the remarkable Eastbound and Down (2009) to the risibly dull Your Highness (2011). After a mix match of comedy dramas, Green found himself injecting new life into the Halloween series, creating a new trilogy which followed directly on from the 1978 classic. Despite the response for each entry falling on a sliding scale, the trilogy moved the mythology forward politically. Commentating on the festering nature of evil. The move from slasher to demonic procession feels less of a surprise now than a stoned James Franco.

The same ambition that took many by surprise in Green’s Halloween trilogy could have given The Exorcist: Believer a desperately needed shot in the arm. However, like many other entries to the franchise that proceed before it, Believer fails to grasp what made the original movie so startling 50 years ago.

The biggest gripe with Believer lies with its reliance on pandering to its inbuilt audience. Believer is totally in love with referring to the film which came before it. Visual references to Friedkin’s film litter the screen. It is a film which uses constant callbacks in a way that wants to show how much the filmmakers have liberated from the original film. Although it never really considers that the viewer could be watching that instead. In fairness Green and cinematographer Micheal Simmons do a handsome job visually, giving the film a rich and textured film from a tonal point of view. Yet the problem lies in the fact that often, there seems to be no constructive reason for its visual homages. The film opens with the familiar moment of two dogs fighting, a clear nod to the moment when Father Merrin spots two angry canines duelling in the Iraqi desert. There is no real reason to rehash this moment in Believer, other than to say: “We’ve rehashed this visual moment for The Exorcist: Believer. Originally the moment provided meaning. An amount of dread and tension felt from a priest knowing soon he would tangle with an old foe once more. Believer isn’t interested in that. It suffers from the same IP flu that infects many franchised-based films today. It wants you to tilt your head and say, “I know that reference”. But it’s not bothered in locating meaning.

Because of elements like this, it becomes quick to realise that Believer isn’t interested in anything it touches upon. Sticking close to the original film's M.O. save for cluttering scenes with needless characters, making the story about two possessed girls and giving the film a slight racial bent, Believer annoyingly suggests kernels of a more potent story but is too scared to leap. Its main thread, of a single Black father who must reclaim his faith if he is to save his child, is woefully underrepresented. The screenplay lacks the weight to match Leslie Odel Jr.’s bold performance as the unfortunate father. Believer suggests racial tension but smooths things over as quickly as it started. One plot point has a character confront the fact that he had to make a life-or-death choice between two members of his immediate family. Said choice is never truly explored in any meaningful way, as it would rather waste time having Ellen Burstyn vaguely talking about spirituality. Burstyn who cannily took the role of Chris again to get an actors scholarship program off the ground, notably rejected taking up the role again until this point. It’s easy to see why she had no interest. Burstyn is only here as a reminder of what’s been before. But at least hopefully her program will allow us to enjoy more actors like her in the future.

Even without all the legacy pandering, what we get is a rather dull possession horror which does little to scare and unsettle. It relies way too much on tropes we’ve not only seen from the first film but in various possession films since. It humourlessly goes through all the motions with little understanding of what made the original film so disturbing. Blatty’s source novel, as well as Friedkin’s film, manages to attach the weight of faith upon its despairing characters. It’s frightening because you care. It enjoys being about the eternal battle between good and evil. The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t even have the strength to take on The Pope’s Exorcist, also released this year. It hasn’t got time to care. It’s more interested in being yet another reference movie. A constant reminder you could be watching something else instead.