The Exorcist: Believer review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The Exorcist has been given a semi-sequel with Believer and can’t quite decide what it wants to be. It never settles on an allegory, a paranormal belief, a personal resolve, a set of scares, or even a single kid to become the center of the exorcism story. I can only assume that director David Gordon Green wanted to slam together various horror movie elements and then try to find the movie in post. Sadly, it never materializes into a compelling horror film.
The film starts as a tragic tale of family, where the single father Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) raises his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) into her teenage years. Part of him still grieves for his wife, who died during childbirth after an earthquake during their vacation in Haiti. Life goes on for Victor until Angela goes missing in the woods with her friend, where they were last seen performing a spooky ritual. Three days later, she returns and shows all the signs of being possessed by a demon. Her friend has the same issues. Thus, spiritual leaders and some familiar faces from the past convene with the two girls to remove the evil that dwells within their bodies.
There are a lot of directions this type of film could take. It could be about Victor coming to terms with deciding between his wife's life and his daughter's life. It could be about Victor’s lack of faith and how he learns to regain it when his daughter’s life is threatened. It could be about the aspects of family and unity being an essential part of facing the evils of the world that go beyond what you believe. It could be a Captain Planet-style combination of spirituality to save the day. Or it could be something as lazy as baptism being the key to surviving a demon possession and only if it was performed before the possession. The film has all this and never develops any of it.
It also doesn’t help that this film throws too many characters into the mix who are not given enough time to get to know and care for. There’s the former nun/current nurse next door (Ann Dowd) who pleads for Victor to give her beliefs a chance for the sake of her daughter. There’s the return of Chris (Ellen Burstyn), the mother of the formerly possessed Regan, who arrives to offer a modicum of sage wisdom on the nature of exorcisms. And then there are the forces of a ceremonial healer, Baptist, pastor, and preacher who all pop up practically out of nowhere for the third act to be the spiritual warriors guiding the girls away from the devil. All of them crowd the screen, and there’s rarely a moment to get to know them like The Exorcist took its time to make you care about everybody involved. Instead, this film rushes too fast through the motions to get to the big scene where a dual exorcism is performed.
Even if you don’t care about all that and want to come into this film for some frights, the film hardly delivers on these aspects. I think there’s a reason for this: Demon-possessed children are silly. As terrifying as Regan was when The Exorcist was first released, her antics of cussing out the religious, twisting her head, and vomiting buckets of bile have garnered more laughs than frights. You need only look to this year’s The Pope’s Exorcist to see how hilarious possessed kids have become in horror. Perhaps airing with caution, this film limits the antics of the kids. This is incredibly sad because the few times they pull off their creepy stuff are still silly, no matter how hard the actors try to cram that bloody tongue into their cheeks. Rather than play into this camp, Believer downplays it so much that the horror is a bore.
The Exorcist: Believer is a depressingly dull take on Exorcist. Rather than proceed with confidence down a new path for the nature of demons possessing children, this film tries to float between bland passages on paranormal evil and a swirling of different messages that are never explored. It’s a lifeless revival that pales in comparison to the more original horror films of the 21st century, which at least stick to an overall theme that works. There are good ingredients in Believer, but they’re not cooked properly.