‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review: Dear Lord, What a Mess
In hindsight, The Exorcist: Believer poster I found tossed in a urinal in the movie theater bathroom before tonight’s press screening was probably a bad omen. You might even call it a sign from God. And like so many of the foolish mortals in this new film, I failed to heed His warnings. For my sins, I was damned for the next 111 minutes.
What happened here? The director and co-writer, David Gordon Green, has had success in the past updating classic horror franchises. In 2018, he continued the original Halloween in a way that felt modern, timely, and scary. Green used that source material to tell a story about the lingering psychological effects of trauma on a survivor like Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. A similar premise wafts through his version of The Exorcist, to no discernible effect. Some of Green’s choices here are downright strange — like the fact that this movie doesn’t really have an exorcist character. If your film is called The Exorcist: Believer, shouldn’t it have one of those?
Instead, Green focuses on a photographer named Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a single father who hovers over his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) because her mom died giving birth and made him vow to always protect their child. Victor won’t even let poor Angela go to a friend’s house after school to do her homework. C’mon Victor! It’s just homework at a friend’s house! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters, both Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) could go missing for three days, then turn up 30 miles away with no memory of how they got there or what they did in the interim. They could also begin displaying the telltale signs of demonic possession: Wounds that won’t heal, speaking in tongues, excreting strange bodily fluids, the works. Victor is understandably skeptical about the existence of a benevolent god after all of the hardships he has endured, but his deeply spiritual neighbor Ann (Dowd) is convinced that there are Satanic shenanigans afoot. She gives Victor a book about exorcisms, which he immediately tosses aside. Then he sits down, waits about four seconds, picks the book back up, and is immediately convinced that his daughter is under the thrall of Pazuzu.
It turns out Ann’s book was written by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the heroic mother of Regan, the possessed girl from the original Exorcist film. (You know, the Exorcist directed by William Friedkin that actually had an exorcist in it.) Chris counsels Victor about how to deal with Angela’s plight, and warns him that skepticism will only take you so far. When your daughter can read people’s minds and bleed from any orifice at the drop of a hat, that seems like sensible advice.
And then ... well, I probably should not say what happens next. But I will say that the way The Exorcist: Believer uses Burstyn made me a little angry. Why bring her back at all if this is what you are going to do with her? (There have been five Exorcist prequels and sequels before this one, and Burstyn never appeared in any of them.) The worst part is that Burstyn’s scenes are the only good ones in The Exorcist: Believer; the rest of the film could have used her steely presence and haunted line readings.
Instead, Believer swiftly descends into bad horror movie hell. Although I have no first-hand knowledge about the production, it appears that this Exorcist may have been heavily truncated and reworked in post-production — most obviously in a scene where Burstyn delivers a two-minute monologue almost entirely off-screen while the camera focuses on an endless closeup of Odom’s face. Then suddenly it is exorcism time, even though the film has spent less than a handful of minutes with its one Catholic priest character. Much of its intended tension hinges on Victor, and whether he will begin to believe in God. But when you’ve seen two girls sprout scars out of thin air, speak with evil demon voices, and synchronize their heartbeats, it doesn’t take a whole lot of faith to entertain the notion of a higher power.
The Exorcist placed its supernatural story in a grounded and plausible world, which made it all the scarier when Linda Blair’s head started spinning around like a rusty carousel. Set in suburban Georgia instead of Washington D.C., The Exorcist: Believer never creates anything like that kind of lived-in reality or characters we grow to care about. Victor’s entire personality is that he is an overprotective dad (apparently with good reason). Early scenes vaguely nod at the way modern Americans thoughtlessly mistreat their neighbors, but if that was meant to build to some kind of cathartic payoff later in the film that material got cut, along with any scenes that would have fleshed out the other missing girl’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) into anything beyond cartoonish stereotypes of God-fearing churchgoers.
People routinely label Exorcist II: The Heretic as one of the worst sequels ever made, but at least that movie was going for something. Whatever its flaws, it had some ideas and it is never boring. The Exorcist: Believer commits that sin, and so many more.