Oy vey, the missteps, miscalculations and missed opportunities in THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER are legion. It would be nice if an, “Oh well, at least you tried” sentiment were applicable here but I’m not sure this movie even earns that much faith. No late in the game tacked on, finger waving speech about love, understanding and the power of community can diffuse the air of insincere opportunism that permeates throughout this picture. It looks and acts like a movie but it’s hard to see it as anything other than a device built to snatch money from the pockets of the converted with as little effort as humanly possible. I’m sure all involved are fans of the OG so why does this reboot feel like a creaky-wheeled medicine show cart rolling into town steered by a wax mustached charlatan barking, “Two for one sale on possessed girls, today!” The good news is that the blameless saintly duo of Ellen Burstyn & Linda Blair are guaranteed to selflessly hand over their paychecks to worthy causes.
Leslie Odom Jr. plays Victor Fielding, a man who once had to choose between the life of his wife and unborn daughter during a bad-timing, pregnancy meets Haitian earthquake mishap. The ordeal, like many a Sophie’s choice, douses Victor’s belief in a higher power. Thirteen years later, his decision seems clear as he is now raising a spirited teen daughter named Angela (Lidya Jewett) who grieves her mother enough to try to contact her via seance with bestie Katherine (Olivia Neil). Depending on your outlook, the girls are either really good or really bad at communicating with the dead because they go missing for three days and are found in a barn suffering from every lazy writer’s favorite ailment, amnesia (depriving the audience of the film’s potentially most frightening scenes) and (too) slowly escalating demonic possession. Luckily (by the grace of God), Victor lives next door to critic-bait character actress Ann Dowd (whose character is also named Ann) who is not only a nurse at the local hospital but a lapsed would-be nun who eventually orchestrates a potluck-style exorcism that dominates the second half of the film. In order to (try to) insure proceedings are taken seriously, legacy character Chris MacNeil (the always welcome Burstyn) is dusted off for a Ted Talk about how possession and exorcisms are an important part of many religions (and a balanced breakfast) and by the way, Catholics don’t own the corner on them, thank ya much.
David Gordon Green’s scattered collage approach combined with cinematographer Michael Simmond’s makeshift homegrown honeycomb hideout aesthetic previously fit hand in glove with HALLOWEEN’s plucky indie roots (albeit to diminishing returns). The idea though that a monolithic religious epic like THE EXORCIST would work well shoved into the same grungy sausage wrapping is bizarre at best and just plain thoughtless at worst; the result resembles a soap box race car. The contraption is able to periodically stroke the universal fear of sickness befalling a loved one and the innate anxiety of guardianship but it feels more inadvertently dredged from the environment (forever yikes to hospitals) than truly earned. To be fair, every once in a while, a demonic image or two strikes a nerve but they are few and far between in the “see what sticks” barrage. Perhaps there is some campy fun to be had here but it’s the kind that comes almost automatically with a snarling possession film (I mean who doesn’t enjoy freaked-out mortals being roasted by a trolling demonic spirit who thinks it’s Don Rickles) and I'd like to think one of the very few critically lauded horror masterpieces deserves more (at least EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC had tap-dancing). It should go without saying that if you ever have the honor of working with Ellen Burstyn that the least you do, is not saddle her with cringey lines like, “In the name of my beloved daughter Regan…” or have her endure crucifixes being shoved into her eyes. The woman is a horror legend for God’s sake.