Discover more from Appetite for Deconstruction
'The Exorcist: Believer': Thank God Friedkin and Blatty Didn't Live to See This Garbage
David Gordon Green played a trick on you.
Overstuffed, undercooked, and shamefully insincere, The Exorcist: Believer isn’t just the worst entry in the Exorcist franchise to date - it’s the worst major studio film of 2023. A war crime posing as entertainment, it’s on par with last year’s Morbius in its ineptitude, but not nearly so funny, because instead of starring pretentious asshat Jared Leto, it features actors with actual talent, none of whom deserve to be associated with this trash.
This blasphemy against cinema comes from director and co-writer David Gordon Green, fresh off his divisive Halloween trilogy. Those flicks were chock full of interesting ideas, even if the execution was lacking, and they had visceral, horrific setpieces and moments of levity that made them watchable even when they were disappointing. No such luck here. The Exorcist: Believer is the first Exorcist movie so torturous that it feels as though it were conceived by Satan himself.
Believer stars Leslie Odom Jr. as Victor, a widower now raising his daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), as a single father. Following school one afternoon, Angela and her friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) go wandering into the woods, and promptly disappear for three days (just like Jesus after his resurrection, which the movie explicitly highlights for the cheap seats, but doesn’t actually pay off thematically, because nothing in this movie pays off thematically). When the girls finally remerge, there’s nothing medically wrong with them… but they start acting like total lunatics. It soon becomes apparent that they’ve both been possessed. Then a bunch of other nonsensical shit happens, and after what feels like 666 hours, the movie ends.
It’s hard to talk about what a horrific (but never horrifying) trash fire this movie is without giving away the “story,” to whatever degree that “story” exists. Suffice it to say, not a single one of the movie’s thematic threads is properly developed, the “horror” is almost all of the obnoxious “jump scare” variety, Victor’s arc is totally half-assed, and despite what the ad campaign would have you believe, Ellen Burstyn, reprising her role as Chris MacNeil from the original 1973 film, is barely in it - if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen about 90% of her part. I can also tell you that the creepiest moment in the coming attractions isn’t in the movie at all, I assume because Green hates his audience and decided it was too entertaining.
[SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT]
The movie begins with Victor’s pregnant wife being badly injured during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (Chile and California also suffered massive earthquakes in 2010; your guess as to why Green chose Haiti is as good as mine). The doctors inform Victor that they can save the baby or save his wife. His wife makes it clear that she wants the baby to live, but I think what actually happened is, she read the script and decided she wanted to get the fuck out of this thing as fast as she could.
Cut ahead thirteen years, and Victor is living more or less happily with his daughter, Angela. Angela has a friend named Katherine, who comes from a devoutly religious family, about whom the film not only gives zero fucks, but actively punishes for their faith.
After the girls become possessed, we learn that Victor doesn’t believe in God. In theory, this is setting up his arc - he’s the believer of the title, because he needs to regain his faith if he wants to save his daughter - only nothing ever actually happens to restore his conviction, and, in fact, his daughter is ultimately saved because Katherine’s father fucks up. As I said, Katherine’s family is barely developed, because Green patently loathes them, so we never learn much about them other than that they love Jesus (it’s also kinda-sorta implied that they may be tacitly racist, but like every concept in this crap, that never really goes anywhere or amounts to anything).
Victor’s neighbor is a nurse, Paula, played by American goddamn treasure Ann Dowd, who is incapable of playing a false note, even when working with a screenplay that seems to have been written by eating alphabet soup and shitting it out (Green shares the disgrace of this abomination with Peter Sattler, Scott Teems, and Danny McBride - yes, it took five people to come up with this excrement). Paula, we learn, almost became a nun but opted out after she had an abortion, because Green has all the sensitivity and finesse of a rabid wolf.
Paula is the one who leads Victor to Chris, now estranged from her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), a.k.a. the girl who was possessed in the first movie. Chris accompanies Victor to go see the girls, but despite her prior experience with demonic possession, she takes no precautions whatsoever to protect herself. So then Katherine stabs her in the eyes with a crucifix, and she all but disappears for the rest of the movie. She is reunited with Regan at the very end, I think because someone behind-the-scenes thought trotting out Blair would elicit cheers from viewers, but the joke’s on them, because by that point the audience is already fantasizing about the theater’s ceiling caving in and putting them out of their misery.
Regardless, Victor, Paula, Katherine’s parents, and some other minor supporting characters we barely know and definitely don’t care about do eventually perform an exorcism (an important element of which is that all participants have to remove their shoes, because if there’s one thing that drives Lucifer crazy, it’s a dirty floor). One of these supporting characters, a priest, is killed violently, but since he’s had about thirty seconds of screen time up until now, his death is all but meaningless.
During the course of this ritual, we learn that all those years ago in Haiti, Victor told the doctors to save his wife and let his daughter die. That’s a provocative idea that might have provided some genuine drama, so Green immediately drops it and moves on (IndieWire’s Dave Ehrlich has posited that this is a conservative, anti-choice argument, which hadn’t even occurred to me, but could very well be the case).
The possessed kids eventually tell Victor and Katherine’s parents that only one of the girls can survive. In the trailer, Katherine says to her mother, in her most desperate baby girl voice, “I DON’T WANT TO GO TO HELL!”, and it’s unnerving as fuck. But that line isn’t in the movie (there is a fleeting suggestion that she might be condemned to Hell because she wasn’t baptized, but it’s one of the picture’s 2,000,000 plot developments that goes by so quickly half the audience probably won’t even notice it). I don’t know for sure why it was cut, but given Katherine’s fate, my cynical assumption is that some executive thought it was too much of a bummer to kill Katherine and send her to Hell. Again, anything that might be even mildly compelling is not allowed in this movie.
So. Victor and Katherine’s mother refuse to make this choice, but Katherine’s father can’t help but cry out for the life of his daughter. That may not be admirable, given that he’s condemning another little girl to die, but it’s certainly understandable. Unfortunately, demons are not known for being forthright, and so they actually spare Angela and kill Katherine instead. And then the movie ends, making a point to show us that Victor and Angela live happily ever after, unbothered by Katherine’s death, while only briefly hinting at the momentous, life-shattering grief Katherine’s family surely faces in the story’s aftermath. So not only does the movie fail to convince us that Victor’s belief in God has been restored, but it takes the characters whose faith has never been shaken and metaphorically lights them on fire, kicks them down a flight a stairs, and shits on their smoldering remains.
This is what I mean when I say the film is shamefully insincere - Green clearly thinks that religious people are morons, which makes him the least-qualified person to produce an Exorcist movie, but he made the picture anyway because he knew there was gold in them there hills. He’s like a scumbag ambulance chaser defending a client he believes to be guilty (it suddenly makes sense that the right-wing troll Armond White is one of Green’s biggest supporters - your moral compass has to be totally fucked to defend something this dishonest).
The Exorcist: Believer is meant to be the first part in a trilogy, with a sequel, The Exorcist: Deceiver, set for release in 2025. I can’t imagine ever sitting through another Green-helmed Exorcist movie - honestly, I found Believer to be such a disingenuous, unpleasant experience that I’m not sure I’ll ever willingly sit through any of Green’s movies ever again (and I say that as someone who has appreciated a decent amount of his past work). But I also suspect that the remainder of the trilogy will never come to pass. The movie is expected to have a big opening weekend, but with a $30 million price tag before promotional costs, it wasn’t cheap to make, and producer Jason Blum has already expressed anxiety regarding its success. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that word of mouth on this turd is going to be sufficiently awful as to lead to a Batman v. Superman-level second-week drop at the box office - which would likely kill Deceiver dead before it begins production. Hopefully, that’s not just wishful thinking on my part.
WARNING: If you don’t subscribe and share, God will make you sit through this movie.