'The Exorcist: Believer': A Bland, Unholy Legacy Sequel
Coming off of his trilogy of Halloween legacy sequels, David Gordon Green is back to try and revive another beloved horror property. Given that his Halloween films were a commercial success, it makes sense that Universal wants to stay in business with him, and that they have put $400 million into making three new entries in The Exorcist franchise. Money seems to be the main motivation in how this film got made, as it seems like a fool's errand to make a sequel to the 1973 original. In the 50 years between the original's release and now, four other films were made in the series, and all of them were rather poorly received (save for The Exorcist III, which has become a cult classic). This, coupled with the mixed critical reception for Green's Halloween trilogy seems to make a strong case to leave this franchise alone, as the original Exorcist film remains a beloved classic of the horror genre, as well as one of the most iconic films of all time. But since we live in a time where any existing IP can be resurrected, it's not surprising that Universal and David Gordon Green have decided to take a stab at making a new Exorcist trilogy that serves as a direct continuation of the original, similar to the approach taken for the recent Halloween films. While there are certain things that Green and company do rather well in The Exorcist: Believer, it is where they come up short that really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is a film that tries to honor its source material, but ends up feeling like a betrayal of it. It takes what made the original film work so well and throws most of it out the window. This reduces it to little more than your average, run-of-the-mill horror flick, and is frustrating to say the least.
Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is a photographer and single father raising his teenage daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), down in Georgia. After school one day, she and her friend, Katherine (Olivia Marcum), go into the woods to perform a ritual to connect with Angela's late mother. Soon after, they go missing, leading to a three-day manhunt. The girls are found, but have no memory of what happened or where they were, and begin to show abnormal behavior. Victor soon realizes that both Angela and Katherine have been possessed by a demon, leading him on a quest to find a way to save both of them.
In terms of structure, the film isn't too dissimilar to the original film, as it hits some familiar beats along the way. I will say that I appreciate that the film doesn't feel like it's trying to be a remake, and does try to tread a bit new ground within the world of the franchise. I like that David Gordon Green takes some risks here, I just wish they worked more often than not. Some of the narrative choices, especially in how it brings Ellen Burstyn's character Chris MacNeil into the fold, feel rather clumsy, and it made me wonder what exactly Green and co-writer Peter Sattler took from the original film. It has elements of that film's reckoning with faith and grief, but it feels a bit heavy-handed in execution. Parts of it are interesting, but it's as if Green doesn't fully know what to do with some of what this film is trying to accomplish. It's as if he's trying to play it safe, which feels antithetical to the entire series. There are so many rich themes that he can explore in the world of this series, but he chooses to push most of them aside, and the ones he does tackle here just feel shallow and hamfisted.
This safeness carries over to Green's direction, which is what frustrates me the most with this film. I hate to keep comparing this to the original film, but since it is a direct sequel, it's hard for me not to keep it in mind. That said, the original Exorcist is such a searing, methodical work, and was so radical for its time. I'd even argue that it's still rather radical now, as it is such a bold and fearless film, and is a masterpiece, in my opinion. Believer, on the other hand, comes across so bland and cheap, as it utilizes jumpscares and poor CGI to frighten the audience. Compare that to the amazing practical effects, impeccable editing, and dark atmospheric unease of the first one, and this film just feels basic by comparison. But even when you look at this film on its own, it feels sub-par, as it honestly feels like Green is more in it for the paycheck than out of any interest he has in the actual project. It's such a shame, as he has proven himself to be a great filmmaker over the years, but he feels so out of his element here.
One of the film's few saving graces is its score, which takes some cues from the original film, most notably its use of the song Tubular Bells. David Wingo and Amman Abassi do a great job of repurposing that tune for this film, but their score in general is so great. If there's any thing in this film that I want to revisit, it would have to be its score, as it is one of the few elements I don't have any complaints with. It is genuinely chilling, and was a welcome surprise for me.
The camera work from Michael Simmonds is pretty good for the most part, but I feel like it gets kneecapped by the film's editing. As alluded to above, the original film has some amazing editing. It feels so fluid and natural and is the backbone of that film as a whole. The editing here is so quick at times and much more in your face than it needs to be. There are some shots that I wish it would have held on a bit more, or some moments that could have been more powerful if edited differently. But with the choices that made it to the final cut, it takes the sting out of much of the film. As for the camera work, Simmonds does use the camera quite well in terms of movement, but the composition of some shots is questionable. There's a lot of negative space in some of these shots that serve little to no purpose, and it felt a bit strange to me. Beyond that, it isn't too objectionable, but it is a bit odd nonetheless.
I was pretty excited to see Leslie Odom Jr. take on the leading role here, as he has been reliably good in his supporting performances over the years. While I would argue that this film isn't the best use of his talents, he still does a great job here. It's a more internal, subdued performance, but one that anchors a lot of the emotional weight of the film quite well. Jennifer Nettles is also great here, and gets some of the bigger moments of the film to shine. I feel like her character doesn't have much depth, but that is a failing of the script. Nettles uses pathos so well, however, that it makes up for this, and you can't help but feel for her throughout the film. The two young actors, Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum, do a solid job, but I can't help but feel the film isn't 100 percent sure what to do with them in certain moments. Despite this, they both are great at showing the erratic, troublesome behavior that comes from the demon possessing them, and are a bit frightening as a result. Ellen Burstyn, while a bit misused here, is good as always. I can't help but feel that she was offered a lot of money to do this film, as it does feel a bit half-hearted at times. But a half-hearted performance from Burstyn is still better than a fully dialed in one from most actors, so I can't complain too much. I would argue that the MVP of the film is Ann Dowd, as she is fully in her wheelhouse here. Dowd has such a presence in this film that grabs you from the moment she first appears. She is a bit prickly in her early scenes, but as the film goes, she softens a little, and feels so genuine all throughout. If nothing else, this film showed me that I could listen to Ann Dowd give monologues all day, as she delivers a couple of them here that were some of my favorite parts of the movie.
The Exorcist: Believer makes an effort to breathe new life into the franchise, but it comes at the cost of going against what made people so intrigued by it in the first place. On one hand, I'm glad it doesn't just play the hits and call it good, but if you're going to make a follow-up to one of the most beloved horror films of all time, you've got to step up your game a bit. Believer is so basic in its approach that it feels stale, and the legacy elements feel shoehorned in to say the least. I suppose this film could have been far worse, and there are definitely things that it does well. Unfortunately, those things are drowned out by what it does poorly, and it's hard to see past them. I already was feeling skeptical about this new Exorcist trilogy, and this film does very little to inspire any faith in me for the next two installments. One can hope that David Gordon Green might learn a few lessons from how this film is being received, but until proven otherwise, I'll have to remain doubtful.