Synopsis: When two girls disappear into the woods and return three days later with no memory of what happened to them, the father of one girl seeks out Chris MacNeil, who’s been forever altered by what happened to her daughter fifty years ago.
Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum
Director: David Gordon Green
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Trailer Review: Here
Review: In 2018, writer/director David Gordon Green took a massive swing for the fences when he pitched a reset for the Halloween franchise, obliterating every sequel since John Carpenter’s landmark original in 1978. Luring back star Jamie Lee Curtis was a huge get, and, for the most part, the results for that film proved to be a positive recalibration for a series that had veered into numerous directions and lore leading to dead ends. Then, the dollar signs started to appear in everyone’s eyes, and suddenly, audiences were told this requel was always intended to be a trilogy. This brought us the grotesque Halloween Kills and the course-corrected but still lacking Halloween Ends.
Before Halloween Ends arrived, we’d already learned Green had been signed to direct a fresh take on The Exorcist and that it would become its own three-movie mini-revival. Again, Green was able to nab a sizable star from the original film, Ellen Burstyn, and early on, it was clarified that this would serve as a direct sequel to the game-changing, multi-Oscar nominated 1973 horror film that had audiences fainting in the aisles. Green had swum in these waters before and gotten in over his head, but with promises that his approach to The Exorcist would be more dramatic and focused on research than the disgusting gore that eventually stunk up the Halloween films, could he make us all believers?
In Georgia, single dad Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr. Needle in a Timestack) is alarmed when teen daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett, Black Panther) and her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) go missing after school. Entering the woods to conduct a half-hearted séance to contact Angela’s mother who died in childbirth, the girls are lost for three days and come back with minor physical scuffs but major psychological changes. Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) are profoundly religious and choose to care for their daughter at home. At the same time, Victor keeps Angela in the hospital and, on the advice of his next-door neighbor/nurse (Ann Dowd, Rebecca), connects with Chris MacNeil (Burstyn, Queen Bees), who may hold the key to what has found a hiding place in the teens. The adults must bind their faith, trust, and love for their family to defeat an ancient evil that won’t be cast out easily.
To his credit, the tone of The Exorcist: Believer is more subdued than Green’s Halloween trilogy, and for a good portion of the running time, you can see what the director and co-screenwriter Peter Sattler were aiming for in establishing a delineation between religion(s) and manifestations of faith. Unfortunately, this never feels like a true continuation of The Exorcist, and that it happens to feature a character from the original film almost comes across as a coincidence more than anything. It’s as if Green, Sattler, and story contributors Scott Teems and Danny McBride had concocted a possession story and have shoehorned it into a world adjacent to the one created by author William Peter Blatty and director Willam Friedkin.
That the film doesn’t work that well as a possession story either is due to Green’s lackadaisical approach to narrative storytelling. Characters, pivotal characters, mind you, wander into the film at any given time, often without a formal introduction. Conversations that begin will have no ending. The movie’s opening, a Haitian-set prologue, is as ponderous as the Iraq-set beginning of Friedkin’s film but tells us far less because the camerawork from Michael Simmonds is so confined and uninteresting.
While the second act gels nicely thanks to a considerable number of well-timed scares and the frightening performances of Jewett and Marcum, by the time we get to the finale, when a team of pseudo-religious Avengers gathers to thwart out the demon, Green has let the film spin off its already unsteady axis. It all gets so very messy, and when you add competing acting styles and ranges to that mix, it becomes less about horror (I honestly forgot about the girls for long periods) and more about tracking who is going where and performing what ritual. Just wait until you see the performance Dowd whips out for the final twenty minutes – I’m not sure who in the room was more possessed.
For spoiler-saving’s sake, I can’t tell you the most egregious crime the film commits, but I could offer that for all the hype Burstyn has in coming back, this is not a Jamie Lee Curtis-type return, and it’s further proof that her involvement wasn’t planned from the outset. There’s a whiff of the stunt cameo here, and while Burstyn is very good (aside from the teens, the acting is questionable throughout), it’s an “expert” role that anyone could have played had Burstyn declined. Too much time is spent on obnoxiously bland supporting characters (Danny McCarthy’s neighbor, Raphael Sbarge’s Pastor, Nettles/Butz as cardboard Christians) than creating dynamic relationships for us to care about.
We’ll have to wait until April 2025 for The Exorcist: Deceiver to see what the next chapter of Green’s trilogy will hold, but I’m honestly unsure where this story could lead next. Unlike the Halloween films, there aren’t many dangling threads by the time the credits roll on The Exorcist: Believer, so either we’re springboarding into a different set of characters or, sigh, we’ll be spending more time with the dull-ish troupe introduced here. Perhaps there is still time to trim back the characters and get to the heart of the story; that would be the salvation of this trilogy.