You know the story. You’ve got the gist of the Catholic Church’s involvement in exorcisms. Little kids probably freak you out. You are either terrified of demonic possession or you’re not. Point is, you probably have a well-defined idea of what the Exorcist: Believer is going to offer.
So is it good, great, or a pile of stale communion wafers? Now that we’re 50 years into the Exorcist mythos everyone has a clear idea of exorcisms and whether or not the 1973 original can ever be topped. Not just topped by another film in the Exorcist franchise, but actually topped as the scariest horror film of all time.
Fortunately or unfortunately, all entries into the Exorcist universe post-1973 have had both pluses and minuses. They all pale in comparison to Friedkin’s masterpiece, but each has differing levels and types of inadequacy. We’re not here (necessarily) to tell you to see the Exorcist: Believer or not, but we will happily spill the beans on the opportunities and challenges that are presented in this 2023 David Gordon Green reboot.
Ann Dowd (Hereditary), who plays the neighbor of one of the possessed girls, doesn’t turn in a very convincing role. In fact, in the third act, she’s slotted in to handle the exorcism herself and effectively has to take on the Max von Sydow role from the original film. Granted, it’s not fair to compare these two, but Dowd is pretty well out of her league.
Speaking of leagues, this all-inclusive version of the Exorcist really gives the heave-ho to the Catholic Church and instead opts for five+ religions to fight the demonic possession. We’re all for diversity and inclusion, but the cloying nature of the Justice League Exorcist Squad was annoying at best. “Exorcists assemble! Form of a ROSARY!”
There is a significant lack of music. What drove many of the prior Exorcist films, up to and including Exorcist II, was the soundtrack. When David Gordon Green brought in John Carpenter to help with the Halloween reboot, he clearly and purposefully used his original score. Exorcist: Believer is fairly lacking in the music department. Very few screeching violins, discordant piano notes, and often the more intense scenes are punctuated with…well nothing.
For whatever reason, David Gordon Green really rushes the story. Between pretty effective, but frenetic editing, and a quick pace, the Exorcist: Believer seems hell-bent on getting straight to the good part — the exorcism. The film contains a significant number of characters, but few are developed and most character motivations are left to cardboard stereotypes where the audience is forced to assume their intent based on their religion, social status, and skin color. An additional half-hour, which really seems warranted in this case, would not have been out of reason and would have added so much more to these cookie-cutter characters.
There’s really no single scene — save for maybe one — that is really, truly, and completely off the rails. There’s no inappropriate use of crucifixes and there are no heads being lopped off. You have largely seen all these scares before and it’s clear David Gordon Green and the studio opted for a more guarded approach to the girls that is in line with our prudish 2023 sensibilities.
Just like you can’t have God without the Devil, you can’t have pros without cons. Or in this case, cons without pros. The Exorcist: Believer has much going for it. In fact, we’re here to tell you that there are far more pros than cons.
David Gordon Green did a masterful job at cribbing shots, scenes, focus, and other film tricks from the great William Friedkin. So much so, that at times you’re lulled into the sense that you’re watching a film from the 1970s. The editorial trickery and pace of the film are fully engaging and force the audience to become invested in the girls.
Speaking of, both girls (Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill) are wonderful. Time will tell whether they’re spoken in the same reverent tones are Linda Blair, but they turn in chilling performances.
The version of hell, that’s briefly explored at the end of the film, is claustrophobic, bothersome, and downright scary. The Exorcist III also gave us a glimpse, but Exorcist: Believer is far more disturbing. If that’s hell, I want nothing to do with it.
As much as I thought Ellyn Burstyn would be patronizing and a distraction, she reprises her role wonderfully. She brings wonderful gravitas to the role in a way that’s value-added to the story and, believe it or not, pretty darn heartwarming.
Leslie Odom Jr. knows how to act! What he brings to the table is pretty darn brilliant. From his relationship with his daughter to his interactions with people in his community, he turns in an exceptional performance.
For once in film history, Voodoo is not bad. Far away and non-European traditions and rites are not seen as a hindrance, handicaps, or somehow inherently evil. What the film points out — not unlike this pro-con list — is that religions are all inherently good and bad. What really matters is what individuals bring to the table.
Lastly, the Exorcist: Believer is actually scary. By my count, I jumped out of my seat three + times. I was mostly curled up in a ball throughout the film and was genuinely disturbed to see what was happening to the girls.
The Exorcist: Believer is a fun outing at the movies. It’s nowhere near the impact of the original and frankly, it’s not fair to compare it to Friedkin’s lighting in a bottle. In fact, the Exorcist: Believer probably falls somewhere in the middle of the Exorcist universe pack, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary, and it definitely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.