‘The Exorcism’ Review: The power of Christ compels you to give this a shot

The Exorcism

One of the most frustrating features of artistic nerd communities is their focus on merit-based taxonomy, where would-be Carl Linnaeuses go beyond the phyla of subgenre separation and start calling movies they deem worthy “films” and other shit like that. That example is poor, given that most people regard that affect as plainly pretentious, but it manifests in some other ways. If you’re concerned about appearances but like a sci-fi movie, you can always call it “speculative fiction.” If you like something that doesn’t perfectly align with your political morals, you can always toss out the word “scumbag” and get the boys nodding without a struggle session. And, of course, there’s “elevated” horror, which, more than anything, is a marketing initiative by boutique studios and distributors to separate themselves from their populist competitors. A more appropriate term would be, perhaps, “artisanal” or “craft” horror (as indie horror already exists to describe proper low-budget features) so that one isn’t insulting the folks in the Platinum Dunes or Screen Gems trenches while making it clear that, like its cheese-and-beer equivalents that it’s just a status symbol. However, the division remains, and it actively hurts films like Joshua John Miller’s The Exorcism, which have similarly ambitious themes and a well-constructed style but come from places with fewer Insta followers and merch.

I mean that: Put Nic Cage or some other actor who has paid their dues with the Intelligentsia instead of Russell Crowe in the lead role, drop it at SXSW, and slap a NEON or A24 logo in the bottom corner, and you’d probably have a significantly more engaged audience willing to roll with what Miller’s cooked up here. Or, more accurately, put a Universal title at the start and watch it be hailed as the New Nightmare for the Exorcist series, which is what I imagine Miller pitched it as to the studio before David Gordon Green swooped in and stank up the place with Exorcist: Believer. The film is about all of the maladies that befall a remake of William Friedkin’s classic – here referred to as “The Georgetown Project” and obscured because of copyright protection – but the comparison still stands, and, weirdly enough benefits from having to obscure its references to its metatextual inspiration. Miller films things with a familiar and modern starkness: Dirty Brooklyn streets and a cluttered apartment contrasting with the blank and harshly-lit environments on set (including a “cold room,” in which much of the climax takes place), approximating the same sort of stylistic rigor that one might see in one of those arthouse/multiplex crossover features that seem to hit every summer right around the end of July.

But Miller doesn’t lean on his aesthetic as some of his peers in the space might – it’s a fascinating and layered allegory for addiction and abuse, even if it doesn’t come together as well as one might hope. See, Tony (Crowe) hopes this might be his big comeback feature after a few years alcohol-soaked years away from being in front of the camera. He was once a popular leading man before his wife died, after which he descended into a bottle and detonated any cachet he might have had within Hollywood. After a stint in rehab, he wants to get back to work, and he finds himself drawn, for some unknown reason, to “The Georgetown Project.” He’s been a lapsed Catholic for decades – he once was an alter boy, a fact that endears him to his wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing director (Adam Goldberg) – and the job is a chance at proper redemption, one that he desperately needs to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins) following his downfall and her expulsion from school. Somehow, Tony’s able to get the job and is able to swing Lee a job as a PA (since she’s not doing shit during the day, anyhow). The two have very different experiences on set, though. Lee falls in love with the film’s Reagan stand-in (Chloe Bailey) and finds herself put to good use, but Tony’s tormented by… something.

At first, that something looks like a bad response to new medications that he’s been taking – sleepwalking, muttering in Latin from his script – and then it looks like a relapse, as Lee walks in to find her father with cuts all over his hands and torn-up pages of script in her room. He’s possessed, perhaps, by the demon in the bottle, and she’s pretty much all set to be done with him at that point. But even weirder things begin to happen, and given the bizarre climate that she’s in, she begins to talk with the affable Father Connor (David Hyde Pierce, who is wonderful here), a droll and secularist priest serving as the film’s religious advisor, about whether or not Tony might be possessed by a literal demon. At this point, you know how this will go, and I wish Miller had spent more time dealing with the ambiguities of this situation rather than barreling head-first into that third act because Crowe is giving it his all. It’s a remarkably deep and pained performance, with Crowe’s features taking on the weathered, besotted grimace of Richard Burton in Virginia Woolf, surrounded by young bucks and booze, constantly battling with the demons around him and within him. His reputation as a DTV mainstay these days is so frustrating because, like Cage, Crowe always gives himself fully to his roles, regardless of what they may be. Even in the film that most will confuse this for (The Pope’s Exorcist, which came out last year and was a pretty good time), he gave it his all, embracing the silliness as much as he embraces the melancholy here.

What I think is remarkable about The Exorcism is how it reverses the normal flow of demonic possession stories – we’re normally watching the daughter become consumed by evil, not the parent – but there’s a real potency to how Miller switches it up. Plenty of people can relate to this, as, after all, most possession stories come from similar roots, with unexplained mental illness or other cognitive maladies being understood in past ages as the devil’s work before they gradually transformed into metaphors well-suited to fiction. But Tony’s comparatively advanced age enables him to have a history with the church in a way that many younger victims don’t have, and it’s one filled with buried trauma (and I hate to use this word, but it’s not done in the same hokey way that a lot of other movies poke at). It acknowledges the Church’s culpability in its estrangement from its parishioners, demonstrating that there’s a significantly deeper reason for people leaving the flock than simply wanting to sleep in on Sundays, and there’s a fascinating element of vengeance to his possession on some targets who might deserve his ire and wrath – namely, Hollywood and the Church. But Lee’s perspective enables us to see this for what it is: A tragedy of a father consumed by one thing after the other, be it grief or alcohol or Moloch himself, kept forever separate from his daughter. It’s one of the reasons the ending Miller settled on here is so frustrating – it isn’t clearly spelled out what happens at the film’s conclusion, and a less ambiguous statement might have helped land the message a little better.

But for what it’s worth, The Exorcism trades blows with the typical “elevated” horror fare and goes the distance with its competitors. Even if it loses by a split decision on the critical scorecards, it’s still a moral win.