What David Gordon Green had succeeded and struggled at with his three-movie continuation of the Halloween series would normally be enough to make any director cautious, even pessimistic to try again with another horror film. Let alone one based on another legacy IP, no matter how much creative or monetary persuasion. Alas, here we are again, starting the same sort of dance with The Exorcist: Believer. Branded as the first of a new trilogy, Green is working to continue the threads started by writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin with their disturbing 1973 epic. Only for the auteur to bite off more than he could chew, attempting to craft a shocker out of what was already a disrupter in the field of psych horror. A classic made into a hollow – nay shallow – legacyquel, where a strong start segues into a sleepy meander.
Green, sharing script credit with Peter Sattler (Camp X-Ray), Scott Teems (Insidious: The Red Door) and Danny McBride (The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter), is a little rigid in his intents for this franchise, bringing it into the modern era while not losing sight of its past charm. He will prove in short order balancing both is darn near impossible; his style follows one path, the lore of Blatty’s masterwork another. Green likes to keep ideas flighty, multi-angular, on their toes. That doesn’t always fit when the aesthetic is an intended slow burn with characters descending into demonic madness, often caused by egregious human decisions.
The decider in Green’s case is Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), a photographer working to raise his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) right as a single dad. The pair could never forget the impact, nor the lingering presence of her mother Sorenne (Tracey Graves), long after her passing. Victor had to make a difficult call, while the two were on vacation in Haiti, the day of that fated 2010 earthquake. With injuries sustained, only the mother or the child could survive. Victor made his choice, sticking by it, even as flashbacks plague his critical thinking.
None of that comes deep into focus until a fateful evening where Angela and friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) take a chance to wander out into the woods and perform a ritual seance. Safe, predictable bet where this goes next – the kids are believed to be missing, assumptions are made of abduction and abuse while lost, and when later found, both are found possessing far different behaviors. That soon ignites prompt intervention, within a hospital that’s scratching their heads and a Catholic church conflicted with prioritizing damage control over the wellbeing of a parishioner.
Skepticism looms heavy in Green’s tale, shared between the institution, the individual, and this production. While evidence clues appear unclear and unsure (blame the weak backstory), this manner of possession still raises high alarm and urgency. But it does rip open a difference in beliefs for Victor, and for Katherine’s value-leaning parents Miranda (an otherwise spellbinding Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz). He was quick to reject certain ideas after his wife’s passing, masking his cynicism with an overprotective parenting style. They’re more affirmed in their faith, but even they are at a loss to see something they’ve read about but would never consider to be proven truthful. Such is a sharp contrast on opposing spokes of the wheel, though they don’t quite gel like one would hope.
Nor does the church’s approach to this whole affair, with Green keen for a spell to poke fun at the business and bureaucracy of Catholicism, not specifically the faith itself. Though all apply to the process of approving an exorcism, in which the action-minded Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla) is thrust into. He’s merely looking to resolve the anomaly; his superiors amount it to nothing more than a mental health emergency. One would think there’d be more support if the situation were more obvious or oblivious toward the dark attributes at hand. Not as such here, with the film’s middle third cluttering itself with the circus of different theological parties. The presence of Pastor Revans (Raphael Sbarge) or next-door neighbor Stuart (Danny McCarthy) do not cut it. Nothing does until Ann (Ann Dowd), a hospital nurse and former practicing nun, while assisting Angela in her physical recovery, gently directs Victor to actress-turned-author Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). And in turn, she shoves Victor into confronting his conviction.
As the one element linking this loose sequel to the original, Burstyn’s screen time is only momentarily effective, underwhelming, and over-reliant on the material at hand. Even as Green channels (without surpassing) Friedkin’s exploration of theological pitfalls on a level curve, he still faces a separate challenge in having his work blaze a new path, without resting entirely on the participation of its legacy star. It was different with his Halloween trilogy; established lore and that ongoing battle between Laurie and Michael could write itself, and consistently stand on its own two feet. Shoehorning in MacNeil, and a half-baked chance for character closure amounts to slightly more than a blatant, out of place cameo, that keeps the story from twisting out of shape while simultaneously staggering its pace. It might be a captivating return for Burstyn, one with potential, but leaving one too many cards behind on Green’s table.
If anyone were to fare best among this cast, it is Odom first. The stage darling as had a methodical leap toward screen lead material. Despite not reaching his lofty, graceful peak from One Night in Miami, his paternal instincts blast with determined ferocity. Both Jewett and Marcum display unchallenged anguish and fortitude when possessed. When visual power falls short, body language tends to make up the difference in great stride. It was Dowd, however, who left the greatest impression. In a performance that’s as bold as it is bridled, she coordinates conflict, experience, and spiritual initiative like it was all the same single perspective. One must wonder where that could’ve been with Burstyn, let alone with the palette of horror imagery involved. By the time any potency by Tim Alverson’s (Firestarter) gravitation toward nausea-inducing quick cuts, Brandon Tonner-Connelly’s (Somebody I Used to Know) ornate design aesthetic, or David Wingo’s (The Report) intrusive, ambient score begin to kick in, it is too late to make a substantial difference.
The way Green overlooks logic or balance in his wobbly approach to this IP is, at worst, frustrating. On paper, he’s a reasonable candidate to helm The Exorcist: Believer, and it’s valid to anticipate another nightmarish jaunt. For all we know, he might’ve been the only one who could reshape the story to current times and divide, and still effortlessly work in that pit-in-your-stomach sensation when seeing a helpless individual amid possession. While he does take a few beats to scratch that itch, nothing’s ever really taken to complete fruition in his script, overstuffing with characters that primarily underwhelm, and scenarios that start out clever with his aim to misdirect, but later unravel with no chance to conclude. I can trust this series to make its strides in the long term; the next installment in 2025 could set itself up for a home run, or more of the same, only done worse. This first step (or sixth) is worth at least one look, for either the cozy spooks or the nostalgic connection. But truth be told, nothing will surpass the original if it manages to succeed on both strengths without being asked twice. (C+; 3/5)
The Exorcist: Believer opens in theaters October 6, with previews starting 5PM October 5; rated R for some violent content, disturbing images and sexual references; 111 minutes.