THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER Needs to Believe In Itself

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

David Gordon Green injects new life into an already troubled horror franchise–but will that be enough to do battle with skeptics?

Stills courtesy of Universal Pictures.

To praise and vitriol alike, David Gordon Green has always marched to the beat of his own drum when it comes to the attempted reinvention of classic horror franchises. His Halloween trilogy daringly explored ideas of the inherent virology of evil and even the potential scapegoating of Michael Myers, all captured with the off-kilter weirdness and earnest character exploration of his previous indie features. To a franchise as beloved yet beaten-to-death as Halloween, Green’s films were a provocative shot in the arm–one that refused to compromise its vision even as the fan community went from rapturous to rabid in the wake of Halloween Kills and Ends

When it was announced that Green and his returning creative team would be tackling a sequel trilogy to The Exorcist, reactions were understandably polarized–which fueled an unerring optimism in me that powered me through the months of scrutiny and negative speculation that followed. Much like Halloween, The Exorcist has seen its fair share of disappointing follow-ups, as well as some thunderously ambitious attempts to reinvigorate and redefine its identity in the horror canon. While it’s a valid argument to say that such a towering and, yeah, perfect horror film didn’t need any of its sequels or prequels, each of The Exorcist’s subsequent installments still brought something new and interesting to the table. The Exorcist III has received a deserved reappraisal in the last few decades, but I’d argue that The Heretic and even both attempts at the Exorcist prequel all offer gonzo stylistic and thematic flourishes that live up to any attempt to escape the shadow of its iconic first iteration. With such a frenzied and polarizing history–who better to attempt a new take on The Exorcist series than David Gordon Green?

Set decades after the first Exorcist film (akin to DGG’s Halloween, assume only the first film is canon), Believer follows photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) as he raises his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) as a single father after his wife passed in childbirth during the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Victor is deeply agnostic, contrasting with many in his Georgia neighborhood, including the very Christian family of Angela’s friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill). However, everyone’s faith is tested when Angela and Katherine disappear into the woods of their middle school–and it’s pushed to the brink when the two girls reappear three days later covered in scars and, eventually, spouting obscenities and making unholy contortions. At the urging of their nurse and neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd), Victor seeks out a new ally that may help explain what’s happening to the girls–Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).

Green’s film is, as you’d expect, deeply divisive. The Exorcist: Believer frequently feels at war with itself, with a pacing that feels both patient and panicked throughout. Any film would struggle to match up to Friedkin’s 1973 original–but where Green’s film shines strongest is when it doesn’t try to do so. The first half of the film is remarkably deliberately paced, evoking the slow and steady buildup of dread and terror of The Exorcist. Green, cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and editor Timothy Alverson employ unsettlingly slow zooms amidst sparingly-used surreal cuts of alien and unnatural sights, preferring their action kept unseen while we linger in empty hallways. The feeling of something lurking in the shadows or seeping under our skin is rampant throughout this section. One can’t help but feel the Believer team playing with our expectations much like Friedkin and Blatty did with the original film. Where The Exorcist played with the idea that its audience had no reference for demonic possession, grounding us in the mystery of what the hell is happening to Regan, Believer wholly knows it exists in a post-Exorcist world, teasing out what we know is coming in deliciously tense ways. A standout scene innocuously plays out as Victor brushes his teeth and interacts with Angela as the lights flicker–a scene that anxiously plays out over an unbroken take yet audaciously doesn’t pay off with subliminal imagery or another notch of possession tropes. It’s a creepy-as-fuck moment that lingers in the air, and completely justifies Green and crew’s approach to the entire film.

Believer also recognizes just how much it exists in a world where the hegemony of Christianity has thankfully fractured, acknowledging and incorporating ideas of demonic possession across myriad cultures and belief systems into its thematic explorations and climactic rituals. Working in influences from other sects of Christianity like Pentecostalism to Voodoo and other West African religions, there’s a pantheistic earnestness to not place Roman Catholicism on a pedestal as Angela and Katherine’s sole method of deliverance. Rather than otherizing other faiths, Believer rightfully believes the consideration of other faiths isn’t just valid, but necessary. When the fate of more than one soul hangs in the balance, it’s best not to place all your eggs in one basket, right?

Performances are also game across the board, notably Odom Jr. as the lead. Victor is a bitter widower, but he doesn’t let it overshadow the current joy he gets from being a father in the present–and both sides of him come to a reckoning as he finds himself embracing a faith he didn’t think was ever necessary in his life. Both Jewett and O’Neill are wonderfully creepy ghouls as they descend into possession, but they thankfully get some spare opening moments to get us attached to Angela and Katherine as young girls exploring with forces they don’t understand. While Burstyn’s screentime is short and arguably ill-utilized, she finds some scenery to chew on as she guides audiences through Chris’ regret-tinged life since the events of the first film. Ann Dowd is expectedly a natural standout in what would otherwise be a throwaway performance–Nurse Ann has her own past demons to deal with, and they come to the fore in gruesome ways that lead her to a starring role in the film’s climactic exorcism.

Where Believer falters, however, is how much time it spends teasing out interesting ideas of pantheism, the validity of agnosticism, and eventually the cruel choices living with the reality of demonic possession can inflict on its bystanders–yet struggles to develop them into meaningful conclusions by the end of nearly two hours’ worth of screentime. The compulsion to bring in characters and references to the franchise threatens to derail what’s most interesting about Believer, notably a Force Awakens-style subplot about Chris’ dysfunctional relationship with her infamous missing daughter that sputters in and out of much more immediate concerns. What happens to Chris early on–no, not a death, thankfully–is also a testament to Burstyn’s commitment to playing even the most disappointing schlock well, even if it is in service of funding an actors’ scholarship program at the end of the day.

For all of the goodwill earned in its patient, creeping buildup, Believer’s climactic exorcism feels wholly uninterested in itself. While blending usage of the Roman Ritual, speaking in tongues, and gris-gris talismans in getting rid of the unnamed demons possessing the two girls, many of Believer‘s exorcism beats are over as soon as they’re introduced, playing much like a “greatest hits” of Exorcism tropes eager to get to the next potentially crowd-pleasing visual rather than let any of these horrors effectively hit the audience. What’s more, many of these moments lack the visual excitement or thematic weight as the preceding hour-and-a-half, potentially squandering whatever interest Green and company have earned up to that point. It feels too tame in some sequences, opting for hurried, stakes-less CGI rather than impactful, consequential imagery, or directions that stop far short of a satisfying payoff before being distracted with other potential ideas. Major kudos to both Odom Jr. and Dowd for saving what’s possible of the film’s ending, as they attempt to find a more consistent character tempo to a climax that sometimes feels re-shot to Hell and back. 

Yes, Believer does have its moments that rank among the most mediocre of the one horror franchise that feels like it shouldn’t even be a franchise. However, even as I write this review, it feels like much of the filmgoing community are eager to memeify this film’s failings into oblivion before it even has a chance to find its audience. For me, Exorcist: Believer has just as much worthy of praise as it does damnation; the film contains some of the most nail-biting dread that Green has managed in his nascent career as a horror auteur, and I’m legitimately intrigued to see how Odom Jr. and other characters may develop over the course of what is bizarrely an already-greenlit trilogy. This Exorcist sequel may falter in its first steps. Still, I sincerely hope Green and crew continue to hold fast to what draws them to this film–it’s a spark that managed to resonate with me even in its most dark and cynically corporate Hollywood moments, and one that shouldn’t be dampened in the pursuit of appeasing those who most want this film to fail anyway. 

Bring on Deceiver in 2025.

The Exorcist: Believer hits theaters on October 6, 2023 courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Previous post Fantastic Fest 2023: JACKDAW is DRIVE Channeled Through Tony Scott
Next post Fantastic Fest 2023: DREAM SCENARIO and Nic Cage