The Last Exorcism

The Last Exorcism

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Despite occasional late entries, such as The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, it's been a long time since the golden age of films about Satanic goings-on, which is curious given that, as this film points out early on, real-world belief in such phenomena is growing stronger. One result of this is a rise in exorcism rituals, which critics decry as child abuse, and which have actually resulted in the deaths of several vulnerable young people. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a preacher whose faith has been sorely tested by his awareness of this. Preaching since childhood, he knows all the tricks to keep his flock believing in him pretty much no matter what he says. He's a good con-man who has conned himself into the belief that his rituals give people comfort and reassurance, but now he's haunted by the risks and has become determined to expose the exorcism racket for what it is.

The film's main twist is already pretty well known. When Cotton takes a documentary crew to a remote Louisiana farmhouse to demonstrate his skills in 'curing' a possessed teenage girl, he gradually realises that this time the possession might be real. On this level the film is pretty simple, though nicely put together - but what makes it more interesting are its moral and philosophical twists and turns.

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We see Marcus as a fraud; we see him admitting to his fraud, which might make him sympathetic, yet he's still willing to take a poor man's money. He has a family to support, so perhaps it's understandable; but seeing him charm other people, we have to ask, is he doing the same thing to us? Despite all this, his real concern for the afflicted girl suggests that he might be motivated by goodness after all. And yet, as the film grows darker, it becomes less and less clear if that goodness is worth anything at all. "If you believe in Jesus Christ," says Marcus at the start, "you have to believe in demons." But if you see demons, is that any kind of proof that there's a God?

Matched against Cotton is Louis (Louis Herthum), the girl's father. He's taken her out of Sunday school because he doesn't think they take a sufficiently fundamental approach to Christianity there. His desire to keep her close leads one of the film crew to suspect that he's sexually abusing her - a modern demon. Modern audiences won't warm to him easily, but there are no quick answers here. The temptation is to call him, at best, overprotective, but how can we outsiders know what he might need to protect her from?

The interaction between Fabian and Herthum, both TV veterans unused to such prominent roles, provides an emotional depth and complexity sufficiently rich that it will lure many viewers into missing the film's narrative sleights of hand. Viewers raised on modern horror may be lulled by the first person documentary-filming approach into thinking this is more of the same; it's not. The ending is, in its way, entirely in keeping with the Seventies tradition, yet one can still fail to see it coming. Unfortunately the first person approach means that it gets a little incoherent. Revelations come quickly and there's little time to adjust. You'll need to be paying attention throughout or you'll lose your way and the real punch of the finale will be lost.

A smart, thoughtful film disguised as a familiar shocker, The Last Exorcist rewards patient viewing. Not only does it update the themes of that golden age, it also updates the questions. If there is an enemy here it will always be focused and sure. Is it possible for good men to pass through the uncertainty essential to finding the right path and still have a chance of fighting it? There's an ambiguity about the ending here; we never really know the result of Cotton's final actions. Perhaps that's because it's the actions themselves that are what really matters.

Reviewed on: 27 Aug 2010
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An evangelical preacher sets out to debunk myths of exorcism with a documentary crew... only to be faced with the real deal.
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