On the surface it would seem this latest incarnation of a familiar property was made both only for financial gain (or so they thought) and with the old-fashioned mindset that sequels must be bigger in order to be better. What is more frightening than one possessed girl? Two, right? Fortunately, this isn't exactly the line of thought eclectic (to say the least) writer/director David Gordon Green was following when making this decision. Rather, this decision is all about choice as choice is what informs the whole of this first in an intended trilogy of new Exorcist films.

Opening with an earthquake in Haiti that forces Leslie Odom Jr.'s character to choose between the survival of his wife and the life of his daughter, the film is keen to emphasize the role of our moral agency in this life and how seriously we take responsibility for our choices is just as important as the choices themselves. The way Green and co-writers Danny McBride, Scott Teems, and largely Peter Sattler weave this weight of responsibility and the constant questioning Odom's Victor Fielding has regarding the choices he's made and is confronted with making throughout the course of the film lend the otherwise familiar template of the exorcism movie some necessary weight, especially considering the lineage of William Friedkin's original.

While that original film saw both Jason Miller's Father Karras and Ellen Burstyn's Chris MacNeil grappling with their faith in the face of this possession, Green and co. have smartly updated not only the location of the film from Washington, D.C. to Georgia, but also the role of church and faith in what I feel I can safely assume is presently a more secular America than in 1973. In doing so, we have Fielding who is or has become an absolute non-believer in the wake of his wife dying. Fielding's daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), who is now thirteen and friends with Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) has a mother and father (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) who are very much ingrained in a community church and seem genuinely convicted in their beliefs (I lowkey kind of loved Nettles' performance in this as she lends a certain credibility to the southern protestant persona that is often easy to dismiss). When the girls disappear after school one day to secretly attempt to contact Angela's dead mother, they naturally conjure the unwanted spirits/demons that then begin to possess their bodies.

As a result, the first half hour to forty minutes of the film not only establishes these elements but establishes the opposition of these two families from the standpoint of faith, what they believe to be happening with their daughters, and how to best help their daughters. I do wish they’d dug deeper into these opposing viewpoints especially considering the latter half of the film is essentially about dispelling the divisions that separates religions or at least not being afraid of those differences, but more appreciating them for what they can bring to the table given everyone’s ultimate goal and principles are largely the same. That said, I don't believe Green's main idea here is unity among religious sects, but more it would seem this was a way in which they might interestingly explore the universality of how exposed and vulnerable one has to be in order to take responsibility for another life; not to mention trying to usher that life successfully through the world until they're mature enough to do it themselves. Does exposing them to faith and God cause more good than harm in the long run? Convincing cases can certainly be made for either side of the coin. This does not strictly pertain to parents, but in the context of the film Odom’s single father, Katherine’s nuclear family, MacNeil’s strained relationship with Regan, as well as the inclusion of Ann Dowd’s character’s backstory all influence how they handle the situation at hand and how the *choices* each makes come to mean the difference in life and death.

Lidya Jewett and Olivia O'Neill get some exorcise in director David Gordon Green's latest.
© Universal Pictures
While the aforementioned template is certainly in place and Green and team must adhere to the final half hour of the film featuring the actual exorcism, the fervor of these main ideas is still present throughout. And to the point of two girls being possessed as opposed to one for more reasons that simply upping the ante, there was a fair amount of uncertainty as to where the film might land given the ultimatum the religious folk and parents are dealt in this final sequence. While I obviously hate to see what happens in the film actually happen, I was glad they committed to the decision to end on this dark, bittersweet note that amplifies that idea of responsibility in your choices and how ones made out of genuine love and care mean more than those made for selfish reasons. Obviously, given the circumstances, things do not feel that rudimentary but the way in which Green executes the denouement of the film suggests not only what these choices reveal about the characters in question, but how they will deal with them going forward.

Admittedly, not every theme or thread is tied up or seen through by the conclusion of the film and they are not always executed in the most effective of fashions – there are far too many participants in the final exorcism for it to successfully engross us in the idea or reality of how troubling and frightening actual possession might be – but as with all Green films his execution is at least attempting to be as ambitious as the ideas he’s hoping to communicate. The Exorcist: Believer is no different as Green operates within a very lived-in world that is obviously present day or somewhat recent, but there is no specific time stamp and minimal technology is featured. Supporting players and/or extras still tend to have their own quirks about them – an early scene where Odom’s character is taking family portraits of locals is especially noteworthy (as well as being pretty disturbing) – and frankly the idea of going so bold with as much is endearing. The make-up and prosthetics are genuinely impressive whilst not leaning too much on callbacks to the original to elicit reactions. Speaking of callbacks, David Wingo and Amman Abbasi integrate their new score nicely with the classic “Tubular Bells” and I guess I should mention that Burstyn does in fact return as Chris MacNeil and whether her appearance here has been abbreviated or not from whatever was originally intended, the scene that relegates her to a hospital bed a la Laurie Strode in Halloween Kills is extremely jarring and maybe one of the more provocative moves the film makes. That said, let’s hope that if Green does indeed end up making The Exorcist: Deceiver that Burstyn (or possibly Linda Blair?) doesn’t remain relegated to a hospital bed while others proclaim that “Evil Dies Tonight” because we’ve seen how that went once before…

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