The Exorcism Explores the Demons of a Troubled Past

Photo courtesy of Vertigo Releasing

If The Exorcism has completely caught you by surprise, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean you’re out of the loop. The marketing for this film has been just about non-existent, so I’m sure even a lot of hardcore genre fans didn’t realize it was coming out. But it’s in theaters now, and as a huge fan of exorcism movies, I had to check it out. Sure, a thin marketing campaign never bodes well for a film, and the early reviews were pretty bad, but I needed to see this movie for myself. I bought a ticket for opening night, and against all odds, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The Exorcism was directed and co-written by Joshua John Miller, and it stars Russell Crowe, Ryan Simpkins, Chloe Bailey, and David Hyde Pierce. In the film, Crowe plays Anthony, an actor who’s been through the wringer. His wife died of cancer, and he developed a severe drinking problem, but now he’s trying to make a comeback.

He’s starring in a horror movie called The Georgetown Project and is playing the priest who’s supposed to swoop in and save the day. However, soon after he begins shooting, he begins to exhibit some strange behavior, and his daughter, Lee, starts to suspect that there’s more to these problems than just stress and a troubled past.

On paper, that sounds like an interesting idea for an exorcism film, and for about the first hour of its 90-minute runtime, The Exorcism does a decent job of bringing that premise to life. Most notably, the acting in this movie is pretty good. I believed every single one of these characters, but hands down the best performance here belongs to Russell Crowe.

As I said, he plays Anthony and does an excellent job of making the character’s pain visible, especially once he starts shooting The Georgetown Project. You can even see it in his facial expressions and the way he carries himself, and there’s one scene in particular that really brings that suffering front and center.

A priest and two women talking
Photo courtesy of Vertigo Releasing

Early on in The Exorcism, Anthony goes to confession for the first time in about 40 years, apparently to prepare for his role as a priest, and he confesses that he had a serious drinking problem. In particular, he explains that he used his wife’s illness to justify his behavior, and the way he delivers those lines makes for a hard-hitting emotional gut punch. 

What’s more, Crowe also has excellent chemistry with Ryan Simpkins, the actor who plays Anthony’s daughter, Lee. From the first moment these two characters interact, you can tell that Anthony’s alcoholism has put a heavy strain on their relationship, and Crowe and Simpkins perfectly capture the emotional distance between them.

However, despite all that, this father-daughter pair still love each other, and these two actors manage to make that love palpable as well. It’s a razor-thin balance that could’ve gone wrong in about a million different ways, but somehow, Crowe and Simpkins pull it off. Anthony and Lee’s relationship is the heart and soul of The Exorcism, and it’s the best thing about the film.

But it’s not the only thing this movie gets right. In this first hour, The Exorcism also features some pretty effective horror. Director Joshua John Miller shows off an impressive ability to ramp up the creepiness from 0 to 11 on a dime, so whenever Anthony’s demons (the literal ones) start to make their presence known, you can almost feel the atmosphere in the theater change.

Now, that blend of likable characters and eerie scares is normally cinematic gold, but unfortunately, The Exorcism is plagued by some deep problems that even a tried-and-true genre combination can’t overcome. For starters, once we hit the one-mark mark, the horror declines pretty drastically.

Two men crouching down and talking
Photo courtesy of Vertigo Releasing

It just becomes super cliche, so by the time the credits begin to roll, The Exorcism feels like every other supernatural horror movie you’ve ever seen. For example, Anthony contorts his body in impossible ways, he repeatedly bangs his head on a table, and the lights inexplicably go out a few times. On top of all that, the finale feels like it would be more at home in a vampire film than an exorcism movie, and while I commend the filmmakers for trying something different, it simply doesn’t work in this subgenre.

But beyond those disappointing scares, the worst thing about this film is that it never really comes together the way it’s supposed to. Even in the first hour, when both the characters and the horror are pretty good, it always feels like it’s just barely scratching the surface.

See, Anthony’s possession is a metaphor for his troubled past, and his liberation from the literal demon inside of him is supposed to represent his redemption from the metaphorical demons of alcoholism and being a deadbeat dad. But unfortunately, The Exorcism never makes you feel that connection.

In particular, the movie simply doesn’t spend enough time on the family drama between Anthony and Lee. It makes the classic mistake of just telling you about their problems without showing them (or, at least, without showing them enough), so despite some great moments like the confession scene, it’s impossible to truly become immersed in their story.

Because of that, Anthony’s struggles feel more like the backdrop to a traditional exorcism story than the real story this film is trying to tell, and since the demonic horror ends up being so cliched and lackluster in the end, the whole thing just falls apart. That makes for a hugely disappointing experience, so in my opinion, The Exorcism would’ve been much better as a straight-up drama with just a few hints of horror here and there (maybe somewhat akin to The Devil’s Bath in that sense).

The Exorcism is playing in theaters right now.

Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong movie fan, and his favorite genres are horror, superheroes, and giant monsters. You can find him on Twitter @jpnunezhorror.

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