‘The Exorcist: Believer’: Satanic Possession Ain’t Just for Catholics Anymore

Come for the return of the Devil and Ellen Burstyn; stay for the framing of the Catholic church as impotent.

‘The Exorcist: Believer’: Satanic Possession Ain’t Just for Catholics Anymore

The Exorcist: Believer—David Gordon Green’s Exorcist reboot (technically a “requel” in Scream terminology)—clears a low bar: It delivers a highly watchable entry in the franchise that was besotted with misses as it attempted to capitalize on the success of William Friedkin’s original. Simply nothing could match that movie’s howling intensity, or its use of religious anxiety, vulgarity, and loud volume to shock viewers. Believer isn’t as profane or pea soupy, but it does present a coherent, well-paced story of demonic possession that more or less follows the arc of the 1973 classic while tweaking it for modern sensibilities. At the same time, Green avoids the heavy-handedness of his 2018 Halloween reboot; this isn’t the kind of movie that shouts “TRAUMA!” at you for an hour and 50 minutes. It is, in a way, subtle for a movie whose Satan-infused principal characters scream abuse in pitch-shifted voices, their faces scratched and screwed up.

Being possessed by the devil ain’t just for Catholics anymore—as one character explains in Believer, it never was. Teenage friends Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) come from different backgrounds (the former’s father, Victor, played by Leslie Odom Jr., is an atheist; the latter was raised Baptist), but find themselves equally under the devil’s spell after going missing in the woods for three days. The first act plays out the missing-girls trope in a way that’s highly reminiscent of ‘90s thrillers—there’s something about the desaturated colors and Katherine’s dad Tony (Norbert Leo Butz) pleading for information about his daughter on TV that feels very Silence of the Lambs. When the girls are finally found, they believe they’ve been gone for a few hours. They are despondent, and their increasing agitation is ramping up to an all-out bodily forfeit—they are pawns of Satan’s apparent sense of cinematic pacing. He really knows how to ratchet up the tension.

When his daughter’s unabated seething makes it clear that something supernatural is going on, Victor taps Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, making her first return to the franchise in 50 years, since the original) for guidance. She’s a hard drinker who wrote a book about her experience in the first movie, A Mother’s Explanation. Her formerly (and maybe still, who knows) possessed daughter Regan cut her out of her life as a result of the book, we learn. Chris loves speaking in declarative monologues—large blocks of text that bespeak a lot of wisdom in this environment for someone who proclaims herself to not be an exorcist. She notes that she wasn’t present in the room for her daughter’s exorcism. “My opinion: because I’m not a member of their damn patriarchy,” she explains. It’s one of many jabs at the Catholic church that occur throughout the movie.

In fact, the run up to the climax repeatedly posits that church’s impotence. For example, a priest refuses to attend the multi-denominational exorcism, instead passing on a Bible to Victor’s neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd), who is a nurse and would-be nun, basically telling her to have at it. Like Burstyn’s Chris, who appears in a glorified cameo (I’ll spare you the spoiler as to why her appearance is so brief, but it’s an operatic/trashy doozy along the lines of what you’d see in a peak-era Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci movie), Ann is fond of pontificating with theatrical flair. Women here bear the wisdom.

When the girls are finally gathered in a room for their group exorcism, strapped to chairs and outfitted with heart monitors, they’re surrounded by multiple walks of life. In addition to Catholic Ann, Angela’s atheist father, and Katherine’s Baptist parents (her mom is played frantically by Jennifer Nettles), they have a Baptist preacher (Raphael Sbarge) and a root doctor (played by Okwui Okpokwasili, who’s known for her dancing and one-woman shows). It’s a real Benetton ad of creeds.

It all goes down predictably, but part of why Believer works is that in its striving to match the original’s intensity, it at least manages something extreme. The lines rumble in actors’ diaphragms, Satan’s a real fucking bastard (via Angela, he taunts Ann by mentioning the abortion she had that led her to abandon her nun aspirations), and the effects include an ocean of grayscale vomit that flows from a girl’s mouth and up to the ceiling. Jewett and O’Neill act their crusty faces off. Believer leaves no residue, but it’s so much better than it could have been and a fine way to spend roughly two hours during Halloween season. This is the movie that the spate of Exorcist copycats that were released in the ‘70s wished they could be.

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