The Exorcist: Believer (2023)

by - October 5th, 2023 - Movie Reviews


Ambitious The Exorcist: Believer Fails to Resurrect the Demonic Terror of Friedkin’s 1973 Classic

Much like David Gordon Green’s recent Halloween trilogy, the filmmaker’s attempt to resurrect The Exorcist franchise with The Exorcist: Believer is wildly ambitious. It is also pretty much guaranteed to be equally polarizing. While Green and his primary creative team (Scott Teems, Danny McBride, and Peter Sattler) take some massive swings, they also have difficulty meshing them into something cohesive. Their themes are a mixed bag of profound and maudlin, and by the climax, I was sadly more disappointed than anything else.

The Exorcist: Believer (2023) | PHOTO: Universal Pictures

One of the more interesting aspects of this sequel is its “it takes a village” approach to novelist William Peter Blatty’s source material and director William Friedkin’s classic 1973 adaptation. The main character in this new story, Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), is an overprotective single father and something of a reclusive loner when it comes to making lasting friendships. But to free his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) and her best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) from the grips of demonic possession, he’ll have to assemble an entire team of disparate individuals to work as one committed unit if either girl has even the faintest hope to survive.

I love this approach. This allows Green to bring together Katherine’s fundamentalist Baptist parents Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), their church leader Pastor Revans (Raphael Sbarge), failed novitiate and current hospital nurse Ann (Ann Dowd), Victor’s workout buddy and neighbor Stuart (Danny McCarthy), Catholic exorcist Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), and root doctor and African spiritualist Doctor Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili) to defeat this evil.

It’s somewhat similar to what the director did with the tandem of Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends. Green attempted to show how a community could destroy itself from within when evil took root and disharmony was allowed to rule. He followed that up by examining how it could bring itself back to some semblance of normalcy once people put their differences aside and worked together for a common cause.

If that was too subtle for some members of the audience to grasp, that is certainly not the case in this instance. There is nothing understated about what Green is trying to say or anything inelegant about where he takes things. Victor’s best shot to defeat this evil is only possible if different religions and individual points of view can be set aside to achieve a shared goal. The director is didactically calling modern society out for its inability to communicate or — heaven forbid! — compromise, and as inelegant as this message is, it’s still one audiences need to hear.

But I still feel like The Exorcist: Believer mucks it up. In an attempt to generate thrills, chills, shocks, and scares, this thematic throughline somehow gets lost in all the mayhem and mucus. The final moments of the exorcism go off the rails (and not in a good way), and while I appreciate that Green follows through with delivering a semitragic finale, that does not make it either earned or satisfying.

What I can say is that the first half or so of this sequel is borderline terrific. How Green sets up Victor and Angela’s relationship, the lovely way he hints at her obsession about finding some means to commune with her late mother (who died in childbirth after barely surviving a catastrophic earthquake), the gradually enveloping terror that’s assaulting all three parents after their daughters go missing in the woods for three days and how that only amplifies after they return and the possession starts to take hold — almost all of this works beautifully.

Additionally, Odom is outstanding. He brings an interior complexity to his performance that’s frequently shattering. As much as Green wants this to be an ensemble affair, make no mistake: this is Victor’s story. Odom is mesmerizing, and the way his character evolves from moment to moment is chilling. He also shares superb chemistry with an equally solid Jewett, and this allows their father-daughter bond to become emotionally exhausting in all the right ways.

The Exorcist: Believer (2023) | PHOTO: Universal Pictures

Honestly, as nice as it is to see Ellen Burstyn, it’s when her character Chris MacNeil is introduced into the proceedings that things start to lose focus and slowly go off the rails. I don’t want to say too much, but the film’s trailers are blatantly misdirecting potential ticket buyers as to how much the actor is involved in all of this demonic nonsense. Burstyn is great — no surprise there — but MacNeil is barely noteworthy, and it almost seems as if Green and company wrote the character into their scenario because they thought the legendary Oscar winner was going to decline their offer to resurrect her iconic character.

I do applaud Green’s continued insistence on doing something unexpected with these treasured horror properties. Unfortunately, with The Exorcist: Believer, I just don’t think he was as successful here as he was with Halloween. The messaging is too muddled. The themes don’t mesh.

Like John Boorman (Exorcist II: The Heretic) and Paul Schrader (Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist) before him, while Green’s aspirations are commendable, they still frustratingly fail to deliver. If anything, the true horror is just how unsatisfactory all of this ends up proving to be.

Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)

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