Reviewed by Alicia Glass
Spoilers get demonic too!
Set some 50 years after the events of the exorcism of Raegan MacNeil, a single father with an unusual past has his and a neighbors daughter disappear for 3 days in the woods together, returning irrevocably changed and apparently possessed.
This is a muddled one folks, even for an entry in the legacy that is Exorcist, and the only actually clear theme that runs through the film is missed and/or wasted opportunities. But tis the Halloween season, and so into the suffering and torment of not one but two little girls we dive!
So Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is, or perhaps was, a professional freelance photographer. He and his heavily pregnant wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) are off in Haiti where he’s getting some great real-life shots, and somehow Victor isn’t bothered when his quite vulnerable wife is taken away to get Voodoo healing and protection rites placed on her unborn child, by some kind if not mildly suspicious strangers. Note the protective rites were apparently only for the child, so when a massive earthquake strikes their inn and poor Sorenne gets tossed down a broken stairwell like a ragdoll, devastated Victor is left with an impossible choice of whom to save, because you can only save one.
Cut to some teenaged-years-odd later in the good ole US of A, Victor is a loving father to a fairly typical if a bit lonely teenager, uninspiringly named Angela (Lidya Jewett). His babygirl is his world, and honestly, the few bits of love we see between Victor and Angela as they prepare for their day, cheerfully arguing about the poor little piggies that sausage comes from, are some of the only bright spots of the movie. Angela is a good girl, does fine in school and has a friend or two, but of course, she misses the mom she never knew, guiltily going through moms hidden things when she can, and the innocent theft of a scarf kicks off a whole lot of ruckus that could have been avoided if Victor had been a smidge more understanding.
But that’s not what’s important right now, because both Angela and her classmate Katherine (Olivia Marcum) have gone into the woods for some kiddie rituals, and have vanished without much trace.
It seems a common writers trope these days, for younglings to want to delve more or less innocently into the occult, as they test the waters of interest in their formative years. Plenty of movies establish why it’s never a good idea to mess with a Ouija board, but Believer seems to imply that the naïve usage of the pendulum by Katherine and Angela acts as open invitation to all kinds of deviltry.
Victor seems to pride himself on being open-minded and yet also practical, but begins to understandably become rather frantic whilst looking for Angela. Katherine’s parents, mother Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and father Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), are desperate too, but involve their church brethren almost immediately too, and make a bit of a muddle of things by doing so.
While the strange hidden tunnels that Angela seems to have found herself in could have been explored way more for audience understanding if nothing else, the scene is downgraded to atmospheric jump scares full of empty nothing. Honestly, the whole scenes where the cops and the medical examiners do their best to make it as painless and not humiliating as possible but have to go through every last test including the rape kit, those are more horrifying than the gloss of what actually happened to Angela and Katherine in the woods.
But that doesn’t matter now either, because Angela and Katherine are home, safe and sound. Right? Except neither one of them is acting very safe, or sound for that matter. Victor in his resignation to give every last avenue to save his babygirl a try, has reluctantly brought in a woman he considers to be a potential expert on the matter, Chris MacNeil (Ellyn Burstyn), author of a certain book of her experiences with exorcism and mother to one Raegan MacNeil, who went through this some time ago. Poor Katherine just let it allll come out in Church, much to the horror of her mother and father, and the Baptist pastor Don Revans (Raphael Sbarge), while possessed Angela just starts straight up attacking people. Their physical appearance gets worse and worse, in the grand tradition of Exorcism body-horror tells, and while Marcum as Katherine looks more or less like a copy of Raegan at her worst, the makeup and practical effects used on Jewett as Angela, as a demonically possessed black child, could have been better realized.
Aided by the rogue former nun turned caretaker Ann (Ann Dowd) and the rebellious priest Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), a genuine attempt is made to get permission from the diocese to perform the rite of Roman exorcism on both girls. And inevitably, despite all the evidence and Chris’ damning testimony and hell, the innocence of both girls, the Church ultimately rules against performing the exorcism, citing the need for “mental assistance” instead. And like Father Merrin before him, Father Maddox is now faced with a crisis of conscience, and perhaps also, one of faith.
Time is running out, the girls are both slipping away, and the useless adults decide to go ahead and do the damned rite of exorcism anyways. The Baptist pastor Revans is there, along with Victor’s neighbor the Pentecostal priest Stuart (Danny McCarthy), the ritualistic black healer Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili), Ann and Chris “I’ve studied the rite of exorcism in every culture” MacNeil, even the cowardly Father Maddox came to help finally. (Not that it does him, or Angela or Katherine, a lick of good.)
Finally, finally, this is what we’re here for after all that buildup, we are doing this thing, the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism. But we have several different representatives of other flavors of faith here already, and Chris kept going on about all the research she’s done on the rite of exorcism in every culture, why does it have to be the Roman Catholic one from Raegan’s time? All the power and faith the Church is purported to contain didn’t do Father Maddox a damn bit of help, either before or during the rite, and even with Chris there to pick up the slack as Father Maddox’s dead body hits the floor, she’s not sanctified in any particular way and basically according to the “rules” set down by the former Exorcist movie, it shouldn’t have worked. The presence of Dr. Beehibe too, as a ritualistic earthen type healer, very closely skirts what the Church would define as Witchcraft, yet she alone is more effective in her faith and power, than these other ineffectual white men standing around yelling at a demon.
It’s apparently the very misinformed choice on Katherine’s fathers part, that finally sets the endgame in motion, and the final casting-out of the demon Pazuzu (we assume it’s the same demon from the first films by the way it speaks; why couldn’t we have Pazuzu’s cousin Zipzap the Grotesque come visit?). And we’re left with a lovely little end-scene where the MacNeil’s are finally reunited, despite how Pazuzu warned Chris she’d never see Raegan again. I mean, technically, she didn’t.
The first in a trilogy of new Exorcist films, Believer asks a lot of open-ended questions about faith, spirituality in general, and the way humanity interacts with each-other but especially our children. Citing the Dogma idea that it doesn’t matter what you have faith in so long as you do indeed have faith, doesn’t actually seem to fly in Believer – it didn’t save the cowardly priest who finally decided to defy his Church and perform the rite; couldn’t save all the grown adults from various religions who would swear they were unshakable in their beliefs; couldn’t even prevent the innocent children from being possessed in the first place. If Believer couldn’t support its’ own characters faiths, the film is highly unlikely to sway audience converts.
Grab your salt and crucifix for protection, and see The Exorcist Believer in theaters now!