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THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER review – Community against the Powers of Darkness

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, and Ellen Burstyn
Runtime: 1 hour 51 minutes

October is here, and with it comes every ghost, vampire, demon or slasher we know and love, along with some fresh meat to see in theaters. One such premiere coming this week is a long-awaited direct sequel to the original 1973 film that disregards all other installments in the franchise to tremendous and well-timed effect. Exorcist: Believer comes to the screen on Friday, October 6th, and it wants you to believe in something real this Halloween.

Fair warning – this is NOT a spoiler free review. If you want the spoiler free blip version, it’s this: go see it, you’ll be creeped out and if you’re a parent, you might cry. In Believer, everyone is resisting belief in something that they can see, not something that they have to take on faith. In real life, it hopes that you watch this movie and recognize the healing it attempts to do for those who’ve experienced religious trauma but continue to cling to their worship practices, pursue their Gods, and maintain some semblance of faith. It also hopes that you don’t let your damn kids talk to damn spirits in the woods.

Photo by Universal Pictures – © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved

The film opens in Haiti, where a young couple are wandering markets on vacation, taking photos. Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Sorenne (Tracey Graves) are expecting their first child, and a Haitian boy brings Sorenne to a local holy woman for a blessing on her unborn baby, which she accepts. It involves smoke, spitting, chanting and touch. When she tells her husband of it later, she calls it beautiful. Later that day, a devastating earthquake claims Sorenne’s life, but the baby survives. 13 years later, their daughter Angela (Lydia Jewett) makes plans with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) to reach out to the spirit of the mother she never knew. After going missing for 3 days, Angela and Katherine return changed from an encounter with something overtly evil, which begins to tear apart their homes, families, faith communities, and very souls. 

Let’s be frank about something – Believer is not what I thought it would be. I expected a deeply gory, disgustingly dark, and overtly disturbing movie that may or may not work. Instead, I saw a profoundly moving drama about diverse faith communities rising above their religious traumas to do whatever they can to protect children. I watched a movie about the daily anxieties and mundane horrors of parenting, made for a generation that is not fully at ease with the psychological complexities of child rearing. This movie is about when your child accidentally sneaks up on you in the dark, or when you suddenly don’t know where they are, when you realize you’ve been lied to, or when you fear they might self-harm. It touches on the fear of other people’s kids, and the threat of ideas that they could give your child or dangerous activities that they might encourage. Sometimes your kid is just acting weird and you have to grapple with the reality that you just don’t know what you don’t know. This flick is made for a generation raised on pop horror – a generation living on a steady diet of Blumhouse horror – who definitely, 100%, hella fear their kid trying to talk to spirits.

Believer is a movie with meticulous editing and sound design that builds an atmosphere of familiar anxieties, mounting dread and the fear that comes with knowing that something is wrong before you know what that something is. However, if you’re looking for the scariest movie you’ll see this year, I don’t know that this is it. It only boasts a few jump scares, the profanity count is way less than expected, and the disturbing content is mostly relegated to stabs, slashes, and implications – pretty damn tame. The brief scenes spent with the fear of rape and fear of mental illness are almost so realistic and familiar as to seem normal, which is a horror unto itself, but not the usual thing to make you scream out loud in the theater. It’s creepy and unsettling, at best.

I think it is absolutely a better movie for it, and the gold therein is bonkers for anyone willing to sit with something a little more subtle and a lot more positive about resisting the evils we don’t know how to stop. Every emotional beat of the film is emphasized by technique, and it balances emotional weight and catharsis with every instance of violence, horror, or obscenity. Special effects and make-up design were incredible, but I also feel that the design of the possession, the escalation, and the exorcism were impressive and interesting, particularly in the ways that they mirrored past traumas for many of the characters which they had to overcome or confess.

Wildly, but perhaps not surprising, this movie is the most faith positive movie I’ve seen in the last decade, and perhaps the most accurate theology I’ve seen in any Judeo-Christian themed horror in over a decade. Blumhouse is the studio that brought you The Nun, a movie where the literal blood of Jesus Christ saves the day, but even I was surprised by the huge swathes of dialogue in this movie that are just prayer or scripture. With that in mind, I would anticipate some backlash against this film. There is real accuracy in the depictions of Haitian holy work, African American root working and herbalism in worship practices brought here during the slave trade, and even the pain of bureaucracy in the Catholic Church. Yet there’s also an excellent examination of the nature of faith and doubts we develop as we age and face human horrors. This movie aims to discuss the intrinsic value of acknowledging your religious trauma, and examining whether your mistrust and rage is directed at a God or at a group of people. Specifically, this movie argues for the necessity of faith communities as they are intended to be before being disrupted and weaponized by human corruption. Somebody at Blumhouse is tryna preach. I don’t know how they managed it, but they put a Protestant pastor, a Catholic priest, a Rootworker, an ex-nun, a Pentecostal preacher and an Atheist in the room together to fight a couple demons with Biblical scripture, and it works. To quote the film, we go to church because we want to affirm our faith, but also to affirm others, and be affirmed by others. Faith community is a crucial to the execution of faith acts, and in Believer, we see people of differing faith practices make the choice to put their differences aside to work on what they agree on: demons bad, save the kids.  

We have to consider performance, and enough can’t be said of Odom Jr. in this role. He is impeccable as a quietly desperate single father wanting to find a way to save what remains of his family. His posture alone during tense scenes with the neighbors and other parents paints a clear portrait of the Black man who feels pressure to remain in control while the White men around him lose their composure but suffer no consequences. His isolationism and some of his resistance to the faith communities that reach out from him are born of past trauma suffered immediately after being promised blessings, and it’s a refreshing struggle to see portrayed on screen. That struggle is portrayed in other characters, as well. The annoying neighbor of the movie, Ann (Ann Dowd), is revealed to have struggled with a life of pain of feeling shamed and ostracized and estranged from faith because of a traumatic abortion experience. Dowd sings in this role, and although her ending monologue suffers from some over-writing, it buttons the films almost as a thesis.

Exorcist: Believer would like to do many things – perhaps too many. It wants to be a treatise on the evidence in favor of possession being at least plausible, if not real. This may be why Ellen Burstyn’s character, the mother of the original Exorcist’s possessed girl, is allowed to repeat every few scenes that she has researched and studied possession in every culture there is. There is one rather poetic mention of the fact that even if possession isn’t real, the suffering is. The movie also wants to be a thing of artistry but is hampered by the need to set the stage for two planned sequels. Music, dialogue, and shot composition in the first two acts are nearly perfect, with smooth pacing and rising terror. Then we have a fairly wobbly third act, both narratively and technically. It pulls itself together at the end, but only just. I think there was a better draft in there for the end of the big exorcism itself. It has a tragic and somewhat odd end, and I must admit it felt unsatisfying. Even so, I walked away from the movie thrilled and having experienced a wide array of human emotion, and I was grateful. 

Grade: B+

The Exorcist: Believer is now in theaters.


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