David Gordon Green Brings Humanity to Exorcism Tropes in The Exorcist: Believer

Movies Reviews David Gordon Green
David Gordon Green Brings Humanity to Exorcism Tropes in The Exorcist: Believer

David Gorden Green’s desperate attempt to find humanity in horror films continues with The Exorcist: Believer. It’s a bit “Evil Dies Tonight!” for my Halloween Kills fans out there, which isn’t meant as a snarky kill shot. Green’s direct sequel to The Exorcist follows his Halloween template by featuring iconic characters dealing with decades-long trauma, while leaning on rally-the-town optimism found in 1950s titles like The Blob. Though Green may alienate some audiences with choices nowhere near as terrifying as William Friedkin’s original, something about the film’s heart endears beyond another exorcism retread satisfied to follow the same blasphemous beats.

Believer is more than just two exorcisms for the price of one. Leslie Odom Jr. plays single father Victor Fielding, a man of renounced faith who had to choose between his unborn child and beloved wife during a Haitian earthquake. Thirteen years later, Victor lives in Georgia with a healthy Angela (Lidya Jewett), forming an exceptionally close father-daughter bond due to the loss they both endured. Victor pushes on, thinking he’s experienced the worst tragedy imaginable — until Angela and her classmate Katherine (Olivia Marcum) go missing for three days and come back under the influence of something unholy.

Most interestingly, Green attempts to reconcile the presentation of Catholicism as an ultimate savior throughout the history of exorcism cinema. The screenplay, co-written by Peter Sattler, Scott Teems, and Danny McBride, expresses an underlying hopefulness that brings together religious groups who can work harmoniously despite separate beliefs. There’s a superteam element to the film’s third act, uniting practicing allies against a common demonic foe, that rebukes the idea of Catholics as an exorcism’s best or only heroes. Green aims to broaden cultural and theological representation in the subgenre.

Believer also wants to balance this contemporary sensibility with neck-twisting nostalgia, with less successful results. A ninety-year-old Ellen Burstyn ties Believer back to The Exorcist by reprising her role as Chris MacNeil, if only to throw a bone toward fans; she could be lifted out of the movie entirely without much fuss. That’s less true of Victor’s unconvincing 180-degree turn from protesting all forms of higher-power beliefs in the first half of the movie; Green’s plot bops around ideas while falling back on common subgenre tropes like a billion Exorcist wannabes prior.

Yet Green continually finds ways to win us back, helped along by strong performances across the board. Despite the plot’s reversal requirement, Odom Jr. glows through his various dad modes: cheerful pancake-flipper dad, on-edge panicked dad, and fearless guardian dad. He plays particularly well against Lidya Jewett in her rotten-faced demonic form — you can see his soul shatter through facial expressions as Jewett dons her best Regan MacNeil impression. Even better is Olivia Marcum as Jewett’s possessed bestie (possesstie?), who is an immaculately terrifying vessel from Hell, whether reciting “body and the blood” to mock a pastor or her torturous confrontation with Chris MacNeil. Special effects makeup packs the carve marks and decay on thick, but the transformation into hellspawns wouldn’t be complete for the girls without believably vile portrayals.

Green’s not the sharpest scare architect, which is disappointing when you intentionally choose to follow one of the scariest movies in horror history. Green focuses on the interpersonal connections between characters, whether as deep as Victor and Angela or supporting parts like Ann Dowd as an almost-nun nurse and E.J. Bonilla’s Father Maddox. The expected fright of on-screen exorcism is swapped for the pain behind a father’s eyes as his nearly-gone daughter spews hatred through a foreign voice. It’s almost like Green is bored by the horror elements of his horror movie, which can be frustrating as the filmmaker pays more attention to religious imagery and a coexistence message that may be off-putting to harder-nosed cynics.

That said, Believer works fine as a rewound relaunch of the Exorcist franchise. It’s more respectful of its legacy than, say, Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, yet still confident enough to try out new material. Green isn’t smitten by the run-of-mill stories of cloth that rely on Catholicism in similar possession circumstances, and offers variety as a wholesome unifier. There’s no denying Believer feels like a Part 1, holding back blink-and-miss flashes of demons and other quick-draw glimpses for future sequels, yet what Green presents as his first chapter isn’t all fluff. Not every hit can be a home run, but Green still gets on base with Believer. Let’s see if he can keep the streak going.

Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: David Gordon Green, Scott Teems, Danny McBride, Peter Sattler
Starring: Leslie Odom Jr., Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Ann Dowd, Ellen Burstyn
Release Date: October 6, 2023

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, FangoriaBloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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