Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a single dad with a 12-year-old daughter, has good reason to have lost religion. He saw his pregnant wife die while they were on a photography assignment in Haiti. A killer earthquake buried his love and his faith, forcing him to make a decision: his wife or his unborn child. Twelve years later, he is a doting, if smothering dad, living a more cautious life. So when his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) fails to come home from school along with her best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), he is more than a little alarmed. A frantic three days later, the girls turn up, confused and afraid, leaving their parents baffled but relieved.
They seem relatively OK. At first.
Then they start getting crusty. You know what I’m talking about. Like, “Chapstick should totally have a tie-in to Exorcist movies” crusty. And they start doing things that unnerve the parents, including Katherine making a scene at church with the sacramental wine, much to the horror of her good Christian parents who somehow missed the cues of her greasy, limp hair, dead eyes, and tendency to masturbate in the pews. Angela, in the meantime, has been checked into a psych ward, after flipping lights on and off, saying untoward things to Victor, and falling down in a fit of seizures. The audience, meanwhile, knows that this is all going in one direction.
By the time that non-believer Victor decides to look up an “exorcism expert,” one Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, looking fabulous 50 years after the original movie), we as the audience have been shouting at him, hands in the air, “Believe!”
The Exorcist: Believer is actual more of a drama of dread than horror. Unusual for a reboot of a horror movie franchise, all the scary scenes in the film pretty much ARE in the trailer. Once we re-meet Chris MacNeil, there is an emphasis on her lifetime research of comparative religions, how throughout history all cultures have some sort of ritual to rid a person possessed by demons. This is extremely interesting to think about, and could open up some many intriguing tangents. And yet, by the time the exorcist action comes around, the only religions represented are Catholicism/Christianity, mainly through the efforts a failed nun (always-MVP Ann Dowd) and a neighborhood priestess practicing some vague African religion descended from slaves (consisting of her grinding a poultice with a mortar and pestle and lighting lots of incense).
The Exorcist: Believer is not an awful reboot, by any means. The first half of the film is dramatically compelling, with a slow build of dread. But the momentum kind of stumbles along from there, despite hitting all the cliched bullet points of exorcism movies. Ellen Burstyn seems to have shown up just long enough for a paycheck (good for her), and is given an olive branch of an ending, which would have been more surprising and lovely if it wasn’t so obviously mapped out in advance.
But while many ideas are introduced, they are not expanded upon (again, the idea of exorcisms in other religions), and if you think about it, it’s kind of weird that we know (as an audience) exactly what is going to happen when a person is possessed by a demon. So, this is a call-out to director David Gordon Green: Since it seems you’ve chosen The Exorcist as your next reboot series, I have a request. Take a hint from your own screenplay and expand your vision beyond the confines of a well-trodden genre; explore the endless ideas that can still be tapped in religious horror. Do it well, and I’ll show up for another movie. Heck, I’ll probably show up anyway.