Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
David Gordon Green is one of the most eclectic and fascinating filmmakers working today. After spending the earliest years of the 2000s making small, independent feature films to great critical acclaim, Green found an unlikely creative collaborator in the form of Danny McBride. McBride made his acting debut in Green’s “All the Real Girls” in 2003, and since then, the duo have had a creative hand in writing, directing, and producing everything from “Joe” to “The Righteous Gemstones” to the rebooted “Halloween” trilogy.
The aforementioned “Halloween” trilogy (produced by Blumhouse) is certainly what got David Gordon Green the director’s chair on Blumhouse’s latest blockbuster horror reboot, “The Exorcist: Believer,” but the far more interesting link to Green’s prior work, to this writer, was, in fact, “The Righteous Gemstones.” With that HBO series, Green and McBride have consistently been able to deliver a take on modern-day religion that is both gut-bustingly hysterical and often subversively profound. This unique mixture of credentials, both in crafting reverent yet exciting new installments in iconic horror franchises and in tackling religion through the lens of genre work, would seem to make David Gordon Green a perfect candidate for the job. And for the first act of “The Exorcist: Believer,” that’s just about true. But sadly, somewhere around the film’s midpoint, things get so thoroughly derailed that the end result isn’t just unholy; it’s outright miserable.
TOP FIVE THINGS ABOUT “THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER”
5. The First Act
The initial act, spanning approximately the first forty-five minutes of “The Exorcist: Believer,” presents an impressively solid interpretation of everything that might come to mind upon hearing the phrase ‘David Gordon Green’s Exorcist sequel.’ While I wouldn’t consider the writing on display a particular strength (more on that later), its simplicity proves effective, establishing a sturdy foundation for Green’s direction, Michael Simmonds’ cinematography, and Tim Alverson’s editing to come together in crafting an articulate visual language. This same team collaborated on all three of Green’s “Halloween” sequels, and it’s evident that they have established a visual shorthand. This established shorthand allows them to tap into a tactile, cinematic, and frequently viscerally engaging sensibility, creating a propulsive energy.
The outcome is a visual style that is undeniably their own while also displaying direct influences from both William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” and John Boorman’s “The Exorcist II: The Heretic” in intriguing ways. In particular, Alverson’s innovative use of associative editing to blend the boundaries of time and space through transitions, both in terms of sound and visuals, is delightful. At the same time, Green’s staging and framing often elevate less compelling writing in the early stages, and Simmonds’ lighting choices exude a distinct cinematic quality.
However, all of these elements that are so strong early on fall almost entirely by the wayside at a certain point in the film.
4. Weak Spot: The Escalation
To this writer’s mind, William Friedkin’s 1973 “The Exorcist” is one of the most exquisitely paced films of all time. Friedkin and author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty’s work allows the film’s story to play out with such a rich sense of resonance that gradually sinks its teeth into the audience. It establishes a rhythm and tone early, which it vehemently maintains throughout the film’s runtime, making the gradual escalation of stakes and horrors all the more excruciating. In stark contrast, “The Exorcist: Believer’s” pacing is a complete and total mess.
While I would again argue that Green and his collaborators do tap into a semblance of the deliberateness of Friedkin’s original in “Believer’s” first act, that all begins to fall apart in ways both big and small as soon as the two central missing girls re-enter the story. While Linda Blair’s Regan in the original has a gradual, heartbreaking arc that deeply endeared her to audiences before turning her into the spitting image of Satan, “Believer’s” possessed girls are absolutely batshit insane from the word go. The film pays a lot of lip service to escalating beats from the original film, unsuccessful medical examinations, unexplained scratches or bruises, and strange peeing-related incidents but fails to ever even begin to implement anything resembling proper escalation into this story successfully. The result is a second act that is stagnant and meandering, and it only gets worse from there.
3. The Performers
Every actor in “The Exorcist: Believer” does a damn good job. I found Leslie Odom Jr.’s performance quite strong and efficient, especially early on in the film. Returning Academy Award-winner and original “Exorcist” star Ellen Burstyn does the absolute best job she possibly could with the material given to her. The two young women whose characters necessitate the titular exorcism, Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum, get less screen time than one might think but do a more than admirable job of making a meal out of the morsels they are given. Ann Dowd even manages to turn a couple of extremely questionable monologues into some against-all-odds, somewhat affecting moments.
There is a point where the performances begin to fall flat (read: the climax), but even then, it’s not for a lack of trying.
2. Weak Spot: The Writing
Look, as previously discussed, the film’s failure to build tension gradually erodes the fundamental aspects of its storytelling and structure. Moreover, the writing throughout the entire film consistently falls short. It presents a confounding amalgamation of poorly developed themes, excessively repetitive and overwrought dialogue, an abundance of characters with insufficient screen time for proper development, overt references to the original Exorcist, and feeble attempts at subverting expectations, which ultimately flounder due to the film’s reluctance to delve into their aftermath or consequences.
It’s a perplexing work of writing whose weaker elements are apparent throughout but become outright debilitating to the film in its second half.
1. Weak Spot: The Exorcism
Sadly, for all of the greatest strengths of “The Exorcist: Believer’s” first act, by the time Ellen Burstyn’s character is introduced to the story, things take such a genuinely shocking nose-dive in quality that it’s difficult to even properly articulate. Almost immediately, the entire pace and tone of the film are upended drastically, as the film (which had been taking time marinating in its own deliberate pacing up to this point) suddenly seems to be in full-out sprint mode from one plot point to the next.
All of this culminates in a climactic exorcism that feels like it’s from an entirely different movie. Elements that seemed like subtext in the first act suddenly and violently bubble up in the most ham-fisted and shallow ways imaginable, with characters delivering full-blown monologues about them, complete with hero shots and dissonant triumphant music over the top. It is bizarre, and even worse, the exorcism just feels like a limp rehashing of things audiences have seen dozens of times since the release of the original Exorcist.
The result is a far more bewildering and mind-numbing climax than it is even vaguely satisfying.
Listen, if you’ve made it this far into this review, I will admit two truths to you here: I am a huge fan of both David Gordon Green’s “Halloween Ends” and John Boorman’s “The Exorcist II: The Heretic,” two films that are connected to “The Exorcist: Believer” in ways big and small and were also met with overwhelmingly negative responses upon release. So, I thought that if anyone had a chance to deeply admire this film and come to its aid, it was me. And for the first act, I honestly thought that was where this review was headed. But sadly, the second half of “The Exorcist: Believer” is such an abysmal misstep in every possible way that even I find it challenging to keep the faith.