THE EXORCISM Has a Soul Worth Saving

“We can’t always save people, but we can forgive them.”

​​As a fan of Kevin Williamson, I’m always intrigued whenever the writer/creator/director/producer attaches himself to anything. Sure, not every project is a grand slam (anyone who remembers The Secret Circle can attest to this), but there’s no denying that Williamson has a knack for shepherding and/or developing fresh and clever projects that almost always entertain, regardless of whatever form they’re in. It’s because of Williamson’s reputation that my interest was definitely piqued when I saw his name attached as producer to The Exorcism, a horror film directed by Joshua John Miller. The movie opens spectacularly with a sequence in which an actor alone on a movie set is killed off in a very Kevin Williamson-like manner. It’s a promising start to a movie that ultimately fails to find a balance between earnest drama and hokey jump scares to satisfy fans of any genre.

In The Exorcism, Russell Crowe stars as Tony, a former A-lister whose career was derailed by his substance abuse issues. A new chance for professional redemption comes in the form of a leading role in a horror movie where the newly sober actor is to play a priest tasked with performing an exorcism. At the same time, Tony is attempting to salvage a relationship with Lee (Ryan Simpkins), his estranged daughter following the years lost to his addiction. However, Tony’s attempts to rebuild his career and his personal life soon become threatened by a dark force that seems to be taking him over as the film shoot progresses.

Going into The Exorcism, it would be safe to assume that the film would be a new offering in the subgenres of demonic possession and the practice of making movies. Yet Miller is so taken with the character-driven side of the script, that the horror elements and Hollywood commentary both get largely left by the wayside. Sure, several jump scares and harrowing sequences are thrown in for good measure, but none of them ever rise up beyond the dime-store variety. Even the horror moments which were meant to pay tribute to the greatest exorcism movie of all feel forced and uninspired. At least The Exorcism has an interesting physical space going for it. The movie’s sprawling set functions as a great playground for the action to take place in. With understated lighting and the closed-off sparseness of the set itself, The Exorcism is wonderfully devoid of the kind of moviemaking flashiness that was in every inch of The Fall Guy. Carrie Fisher once said that the film set is the most unnatural place in the world, which makes sense given the way the set of The Exorcism feels. While the actual space comes across like a real place, as the movie progresses, a dark menace starts to take over that, in its own way, only adds to the magic and allure of film sets in general.

It’s unclear whether Miller and company realized this, but The Exorcism has the dread-filled atmosphere down even without the frights. This is all due to the movie’s compelling main character. There’s something incredibly endearing and heartbreaking in watching this once-prominent actor trying to make it again. One of the movie’s strengths is that its portrayal of Tony goes against the onscreen image of the fallen movie star. Tony is shown to be a broken man trying to put himself together in a professional world that has very little room for humanity, despite cheering for redemption. Regardless of where a person comes from, it’s almost always a humbling experience to witness someone fight their way back to the person that they once were before their own darkness took over. Atonement plays a big part in The Exorcism as Tony fights to prove to both Lee and the industry that he has conquered his demons and has returned as a complete person again. It’s when those demons (both personal and supernatural) start to take Tony on once more that he is put to the ultimate test. But the subtle and gradual rebuilding of the relationship between him and Lee coupled with the latter’s struggle to love her father amid her disappointment in him is what gives The Exorcism a real soul. 

Much has been written about Crowe’s outside troubles in the past and the suspicion that he might now have gotten to that stage of his career where he’s looking for a quick paycheck and phoning in his performances rather than giving it his all. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to his work in The Exorcism. Crowe is trying here, genuinely, just like his character. The actor has foregone any hint of vanity and allowed himself to slip into the skin of a man who has so much regret, yet still has just enough fight in him to try and make it back. It’s a role that allows for some great moments of vulnerability from the actor, which he delivers with a kind of openness that he’s seldom been allowed to show before. The Oscar winner is certainly in good company. Simpkins delivers a heartbreaking turn, while David Hyde Pierce anchors the film as a priest called in as a technical advisor on the film Tony is working on. 

Even if the jump scares in The Exorcism aren’t plentiful or all that effective, there’s still a genuine pull in seeing Tony try and fight to make it through his own darkness. Miller’s film is nowhere as strong an offering as The Final Girls (his 2015 screenwriting debut) but is still incredibly powerful due to its worthwhile illustration of showing how the demons inside a person can manifest themselves. One can only imagine this had to have been a healing, cathartic project for Miller to create, which is probably why he shies away from going the full Linda Blair route for as long as he does here. If The Exorcist fails as a horror movie, it succeeds as a testament to the battle of the human soul and spirit against the everyday demons that are all around.

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