Review – The Exorcism

the exorcism poster

Overview

Synopsis A washed-up actor is given a chance to redeem his career when he takes up the role of a priest in a cursed film production.

Length 1 hour, 35 minutes

Release Date June 21, 2024

 

Rating R

Distribution Vertical Entertainment

Directing Joshua John Miller

Writing M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller

Composition Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Simpkins, Sam Worthington, David Hyde Pierce

When I first watched the trailer for The Exorcism, I must admit that I did a double take. Haven’t we already seen this film? Russell Crowe plays a priest that needs to perform an exorcism. Where have we seen this before? That’s right! The Pope’s Exorcist! I sat confused as I wondered whether The Exorcism was attached to that story in some way, like a director’s cut or sequel. But no, Russell Crowe really did play two extremely similar roles essentially back-to-back.

The Exorcism is a completely different entity to The Pope’s Exorcist, and that’s perfectly fine. The latter was a mediocre film at best, however Crowe did seem to be having a blast playing Father Gabriel Amorth, and he was one of the few saving graces of that movie. I don’t know why there’s a sudden influx of Crowe in exorcist roles, but hey, I’m down for it! Let’s see if he does better this time around.

Please note that Geeks Under Grace received a screener to review this film.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: This movie is a horror film that intends to scare its audience. Several characters are possessed by a demon; they contort their body, angrily confront others, and move in erratic ways. One character commits suicide, and another is stabbed in the face. A person is burned to death. There are multiple incidents of physical assault.

Language/Crude Humor: Sporadic but frequent course language is littered throughout the film, including the f-bomb and s-word. God and Christ’s name are used in vain.

Drug/Alcohol References: A character is an alcoholic and is portrayed several times drinking to excess, although this is always seen as a negative behaviour. Other characters drink socially. Several substances are smoked, including illicit drugs, although its portrayal isn’t heavy. References to cocaine usage. One character takes (and then fails to take) prescription medication.

Sexual Content: A naked man is seen from the back – no genitalia is seen. A homosexual relationship develops, where the couple kiss and hold each other. There are several instances of sexually suggestive language, sometimes in an abusive, incestuous context. It is strongly suggested that a character has been sexually abused by a person in the priesthood in the past.

Spiritual Content: The entire film contains people questioning the existence of God and the devil. Multiple people are possessed by a demon, and the Word of God brings salvation.

Other Negative Content: There’s a lot of abusive behaviour that goes unchecked, or justice is not found. A toxic workplace environment is somewhat normalised. One death in particular feels underexplored in terms of realistic consequences.  

Positive Content: Strong portrayal of the accusatory nature of spiritual oppression, leading to a powerful realisation of God’s love, acceptance and grace.

Review

The Exorcism is an intelligently layered narrative. It navigates several psychological rabbit holes and blends them together creating a deep well of themes, all while managing to avoid the most obvious tropes along the way. Yet it comes at the cost of disappointing your average horror movie fan. As a character comments within the film in what could possibly be a meta moment, The Exorcism could be described as a “psychological drama wrapped in the skin of a horror movie”.

While it’s possible that any movie can contain toxic messaging (I’m looking at you, romance films!), Christians in particular tend to take more issue with the horror genre. It’s not without good reason—at their best, horror films have the ability to use genre tropes to highlight and creatively explore some of the darkest and most difficult topics about life which could not be effectively tackled through other narrative means, while at their worst they’re just plain evil, where it’s either disturbing that a screenwriter sat down and contemplated such depravity, or the story straight up glorifies Satan.

Horror films about demons? Well, they’re particularly “icky”. Going into them, you don’t know which side of the aisle they’re going to fall. Sometimes this subgenre is incredibly empowering for Christians; spiritual battles are not only portrayed but also validated, the Christian characters are taken seriously, and the power of the Trinity is reaffirmed over the powers of darkness (usually by reading out Scripture in the most epic fashion possible). But sometimes Hollywood or other studios go for more of a “twist” by unbalancing things, making demons more powerful, more threatening, where sometimes even God isn’t enough to save someone. It’s not only theologically incorrect, but it’s a defeatist worldview that can introduce unwanted negative thoughts to viewers. I must admit that even as a film critic, I’m always more trepidatious entering these types of stories, as I have to ensure that I’m in the right headspace to engage with such potentially heavy content.

It is a delight to report that The Exorcism contains many God-affirming narrative choices. It is an interesting film for Christians because it treads away from some of the more dramatic horror tropes that are seen in this subgenre. There’s no ancient crypt or cursed object that supernaturally infects someone with a demon. Instead, it’s more subtle, much like how the powers of darkness tend to operate. The Exorcism is one of the best films I’ve seen that toys with the accusatory nature of Satan (or demons in general). The descent of one character is not contained within one grandiose moment, rather a demon gains a foothold through a simple sentence, a falsehood, which spirals into depression, then a turning to vices, followed by the trappings of addiction. Some viewers may find a certain relatability to this journey, as the film adopts the more colloquial “battle with your demons” approach that’s more recognisable in real life, as opposed to the movies that follow a more monster flick vein.

I’ve heard it said that when God created the angels, they were given a purpose—to follow Him. Therefore, when the demons (once angels) rejected God, they also rejected the very nature within themselves; there’s an element of self-loathing attached to their existence. That’s why God instructs us to love—our neighbours, ourselves, and God—as the act of self-loathing and self-hatred is the nature of demons. The central demonic possession witnessed in The Exorcism nicely falls into this concept, as the terror stems less from evil theatrics, but more from the heartbreaking tale of a man haunted by past traumas, quickly becoming riddled with addiction and mental illness, all observed through the eyes of his loved one. As mentioned before, it’s more drama than horror, causing the film to hit differently compared to others of its ilk.

When it does come to demons, it’s all assumed prior knowledge. The Exorcism is absent of a scene where a mentor figure explains some dusty history of the church or some random demon lore from an ancient occult scroll, and neither do they instruct or otherwise lay down the rules of engagement. It makes sense in the context—most of the characters are part of a film production, creating a movie that’s similar in plot to The Exorcist. Russell Crowe plays Anthony Miller, an unbankable has-been actor that’s trying to reboot their career by taking on the role of the priest in this film-within-a-film. These characters have literally read the script on what to do, so exposition for them isn’t necessary, although there are times where the lack of discussion about the existence of demons does start to feel unrealistic given the events that occur. As a result, there’s a lot of theological concepts that simmer just underneath the surface, such as the components found in Ephesians 6:10-18’s “Amour of God” passage. The film contains an entire motif about the need to believe what one says they believe. The central themes beg the question as to how one can remain composed with the “belt of truth” if they are succumbed by lies? Or how they can be shielded by their faith if there is none?  Is it even possible to use the Word of God as a sword against the darkness if one doesn’t have the Spirit or know the Scriptures well enough (or in Anthony’s case, has trouble remembering his lines)? None of this is directly addressed in the film, but for Christian viewers there’s enough theological layering to mull over these topics.

But there’s another whole anchoring of themes within The Exorcism and that’s related to acting theories. The artform is more philosophical than some might expect, and when I studied theatre at university, a lot of time was dedicated to exploring deep psychological concepts. There’s a beautiful dovetailing of themes in The Exorcism as a common acting method is to believe what you say to believe. For instance, if your character is reading a newspaper in a scene, don’t pretend to read the paper, rather actually read the newspaper. Wherever possible, actually do what you’re meant to be doing. If your character is angry, don’t act like you’re angry, rather take on board the given circumstances of the scene and actually get angry. Anthony struggles in his role as a priest, not just because of demonic possession (which leads to a very interesting trope reversal later on), but because he doesn’t have any emotional weight behind his lines, as his troubled relationship with God prevents him from connecting to his character.

This need to believe leads to a deeper problem, as some acting methods are more psychologically damaging than others. In order to connect to their character’s extreme circumstances, some actors will unpick and reopen old wounds from their personal life, as done by Anthony in the film. As viewers, it’s common to praise an actor for “becoming someone else”, but that’s technically never true—it’s impossible to become someone else, it’s just you, always you, and an actor has merely emphasised some aspects of themselves that may have been deeply buried, and suppressed some other parts of their personality in order to achieve that illusion. If you choose to study acting at a professional level, you’ll find that only the first few years of refining your craft is about finding that character within yourself, and the rest of the lessons will be about setting healthy boundaries so you can rediscover yourself once it’s over. I cannot stress enough the importance of developing the skill to de-role.

It’s a dilemma that Christian actors are likely to face at some point in their careers. Whether they’re helping their church out with a drama before a sermon, or involved in a Christian-based narrative for a larger production, usually someone, at some point, will need to play the role of Satan. Or a villain. If it’s a Good Friday production, then someone needs to mock the actor playing Christ. It’s about finding that thin boundary between having enough conviction to sell the role to assist the storytelling process, and knowing how far to go before, you know, you mentally go there. It’s the philosophical question as to where you stop and the character begins, made all the more complicated because you’re technically the one and the same.

The Exorcism details a harrowing warning for actors as it depicts Anthony in a sadly all-too-familiar scenario where he’s dealing with an abusive director that doesn’t respect those internal boundaries, and he is pressured into blurring the lines of acting and real life. There’s an even deeper layer to all this considering that Russell Crowe may have drawn upon some of his own dark personal experiences in order to play the role of Anthony Miller. It’s a Tropic Thunder scenario where he’s “the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude!” Yet things get even more meta considering that The Exorcism’s screenwriter and director, Joshua John Miller, is the son of actor Jason Miller, who played the role of Father Karras in The Exorcist, the very film that The Exorcism tends to spoof the most. It also touches upon the urban legends of there being “cursed films” of which The Exorcist is said to belong, (which is explored in the first episode of the documentary series, Cursed Films, that’s found on Shudder, the same VOD distributor that will eventually house The Exorcism). There’s just a rabbit warren of holes to explore, and if you’re a movie geek that also likes to study up on the filmmaking process or acting as a craft, then The Exorcism is a cerebrally engaging film.

The film’s thematic exploration is its strongest element, and it’s a shame it couldn’t stay within the realm of a “spooky drama”, even though it would be unusual to see given the subject matter. Unfortunately, it gets a little too gory to recommend to viewers that have a natural distaste of horror but would prefer the more dramatic tendencies of the story. For fans of the horror genre, The Exorcism is a disappointment. The scares are too sparsely littered throughout the film, and when they do appear, a lot feel stale. Some of the jump scares are effective due to their suddenness; it’s not like The Conjuring franchise which is famous for building up an entire scene to lead up to a memorable scare. But while you may experience a jump or two, the film lacks suspense and tension overall. The story travels at a slow pace as it explores the central family drama, leaving most of the horror elements right till the end, which will push people’s patience too far for many viewers.

Like most narratives, there’s an inner and external conflict, and while The Exorcism does an admiral job in fleshing out and portraying the internal struggles that occur with spiritual warfare (which is impressive given that film is a visual medium), it does feel lazy when it comes to associating it with an external threat. It falls into clichés, providing a more Hollywood-styled version of possession, producing scene after scene of events that regrettably feel familiar and have been done better in other films. A horror fan’s patience is not adequately awarded here. The movie’s conclusion is underwhelming and slightly messy. While the film’s resident priest is a likeable character and offers decent positive representation, he does say a few things that essentially drop the ball regarding his interpretation of certain doctrines. That storytelling choice can be justified when factoring in the narrative’s themes towards the end, but it still feels clumsy and is somewhat irritating and nonsensical.

There is a homosexual relationship present in the film. It tends to add more depth to the story as opposed to subtracting from it, but it’s ultimately fairly irrelevant. It’s there. It exists. It’s not unique. It’s not obnoxious or irritatingly prominent enough to warrant being hit with the “Woke” label, though some viewers may slap down that judgement regardless. Admittedly, it may have been more interesting if it had been left as friendship, mainly because good platonic relationships are getting harder to find in modern in cinema.

As for the other production elements, there’s only a little to critique. There are a few reasonably famous faces in amongst the cast, and each actor adequately performs their role. However, Russell Crowe appeared to have more fun in The Pope’s Exorcist; Anthony is a serious character, downcast, and has a lower energy in comparison to Father Amorth, so it’s more difficult to see Crowe’s own enjoyment leak across into his acting.

The film’s towering movie set that’s reminiscent of The Exorcist’s is a treat explore, but when the story shifts to Anthony’s apartment, the layout and geography of the scene can sometimes be confusing. The film enjoys playing with light, with it shifting in and out, although sometimes the environment can feel too dark to properly make out the action. Meanwhile, the framing and colour correction is gorgeous, but the cinematography and editing feels uninspired, failing to ramp up audience excitement for the final showdown.  

Ultimately, it’s a difficult film to judge. About halfway through the movie I came to the realisation that I belonged in the perfect demographic for this film; a Christian actor movie buff with an appreciation of the horror genre. That’s very niche. The Exorcism is very much flawed, but I did adore a lot of what it attempted to achieve. I enjoyed entertaining all the topics and thoughts it conjured up about various things, even though it’s not the most groundbreaking movie about the subject of demonic possession. Judging from the reviews and scores from others, I appear to be in the minority; most people aren’t impressed, as the film awkwardly inserts very average stereotypical scares in the hopes of appealing to horror fans, but it’s simply not enough and it misses that demographic completely. Yet because it eventually goes in the direction of schlock, it’s hard to recommend to the people who will like the drama in the first half. So, I say this: if you’re the type of person that appreciated Halloween Ends, then give The Exorcism a go. It’s far from a masterpiece, but it’s different enough to warrant a look, and in time it may find its own footing due to its more unique approach regarding the topic of spiritual warfare. But I had fun, so I’m biased and rating it accordingly—deduct two points from my score if you don’t believe you’re part of this niche demographic. It’s currently still out in select cinemas distributed by Vertigo Releasing (UK) or Vertical Entertainment (USA), before it will eventually move to Shudder.

Positives

+ God-affirming
+ Masterful layering of themes
+ Generates discussion

Negatives

- Not scary
- Horror elements haphazardly slapped in
- Nothing spectacular
- Too gory for people who like drama
- Too boring for people who like horror
- Niche demographic

The Bottom Line

The drama behind The Exorcism generates a number of worthy discussions, but its horror elements only end up cheapening the film, leaving much to be desired.

 

7.7

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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