The Exorcist: Believer

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The movie “The Exorcist: Believer” is really nice, but it’s so full of personalities and half-formed ideas that you could leave it wondering what it could have been.

David Gordon Green, who recently oversaw a trilogy of “Halloween” sequels, directed and co-wrote the film. It centers on the simultaneous possession of two young girls (apparently by the same demon that possessed the first film), and the harmonious convergence of parents and clerics trying to free them from evil. It’s perhaps the first “Exorcist” sequel since 1977’s occasionally superb “Exorcist II: The Heretic” that successfully captures the enduring sense of the supernatural that made William Friedkin’s debut installment a smashing success.

The slowest and most subdued section of the film is the first third, which establishes the foundation of the story. However, it’s also the most enjoyable because of the assured way in which it makes the audience wonder if evil is already there in the story or if we’re just being paranoid. It does this by confidently using quiet, misdirection, and negative space. Green clearly studied William Friedkin’s original as though it were a holy (or unholy?) text and emulates some of the master’s methods for frightening audiences, such as using a disruptive sound (like a car horn) when the movie switches from one scene to the next or cutting away to unsettling, peculiarly framed closeups (flashes of demonic faces and bloody wounds, shots of jackhammers).

The movie eventually succumbs to the issue that frequently affects superhero movies with a large cast of heroes and antagonists, which makes it less engaging as it progresses. The film eventually loses touch with the source of its initial force, the privilege of focusing on the main characters, a widower father named Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his daughter Angela (Lydia Jewett). The story’s energy is spread and the movie loses contact with the source of its initial power.

The prologue of the movie introduces us to Victor, who is traveling with his very pregnant wife and is also a photographer. The prologue is set in Haiti. She is crushed by an earthquake that causes the hotel they are staying at to collapse, but not before she accepts their permission to keep the baby safe.

Doctors advise Victor that they cannot rescue both his wife and their unborn daughter. We are aware of the outcome. The story leaves out the specifics of how the choice was made and how it affected Victor in order to save everything for later discoveries and gradually growing flashbacks.

After thirteen years, Victor and his daughter now reside in Atlanta, Georgia, where Victor runs a successful photography business. The now-13-year-old Angela requests her first-ever after-school study visit with a classmate, her best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), whose parents are Catholic (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz), from her obviously overly-protective father.

Unfortunately, this is not your typical study break. The girls spent a couple of stealthy hours in the woods next to the school speaking with a spirit at the bottom of some kind of abandoned shaft and then, well, they were different when they came out.

The movie at first seems to be another exorcism film focused on Catholicism, but this is a diversion that sets up some funny jokes (not on Catholicism itself, but on how so many exorcism movies depict the Vatican as the spiritual equivalent of The Avengers). The movie ultimately decides to take more of a United Nations-style approach to spirituality, recognizing that most historical societies have experienced analogs to possession and exorcism before convening experts to battle the demon from various religious perspectives.

The comparatively leisurely 121 minute length of “The Exorcist: Believer” makes it a rare instance where a longer cut might be preferable to a shorter one. Given that the protagonist and his late wife both worked as photographers, one would anticipate that this movie will use photography in a similar way as the first one did with sound recording. Unfortunately, either the script is uninteresting or a portion of the film was trimmed down to almost nothing. We haven’t had a chance to spend enough time getting to know the numerous characters in that evil-infused room, let alone learning the specifics of their beliefs, thus the finale doesn’t hit as hard as it ought have.

And there are many unexplored themes and ideas connected to all that, such as the idea that a culturally divided America needs to come together for the benefit of the kids, as well as oddly off-brand positive exhortations that everything happens as it should, even trauma, and that there would be less evil in the world if we were more emotionally connected to one another. Although it doesn’t explicitly say so, the message at the conclusion is “Love is the real exorcist.”

On October 6th, in theaters.

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