The Exorcism

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Exorcism
"Crowe is in his element here."

Was the production of William Friedkin’s horror classic The Exorcist cursed? There are so many stories about what happened on and around the set that lots of people believe it. Look a little closer and it’s less convincing. Did one man lose a thumb? Yes, but he was a carpenter – it’s a hazard of the trade. Did some actors die? Yes, but over a year of shooting, these things happen. Star Linda Blair was briefly a supporter of the theory on the basis that her pet mouse died – an animal with a two year lifespan. Nevertheless, the rumours of demonic influence were so persistent – and Friedkin so artful in exploiting them – that superstition persists to this day.

It’s for this reason that the opening of Joshua John Miller’s The Exorcism immediately divides its audience by age and genre affiliation. You will need to be familiar with The Exorcist and its history to recognise the set through which we see a man strolling, muttering lines from the script to himself. For some viewers it will just be another scary movie; for others, there is a deeper sinister thrill. Top marks for those who also remember the bird strike story and the electrical fire which affected the Friedkin set. At any rate, this is a hell of a place to start from – no pun intended.

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The reason for this apparent trip back in time – one briefly supported by an elegant drone shot that takes us through the streets of a city which is not Georgetown but has the Seventies colours and grainy look down perfectly – is that we are witness to the shooting of a film called The Georgetown Project, an Exorcist remake. Helmed by Peter (Adam Goldberg), who is something of a stereotypical aggressive, perfectionist director unconcerned about what damage he might do to his stars along the way, it features Goldberg’s A Beautiful Mind co-star Russell Crowe in the Max Von Sydow role. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict with a destructive temper, Crowe’s character, Tony, is himself going through a crisis of faith, even as his character does.

A capable actor who got stuck in action roles mid-career for so long that people forgot he could do anything else, Crowe is in his element here. His own reputation for fighting may have been exaggerated but he knows how it feels to face public humiliation in the aftermath of acclaim, and his experiences in trying to stop chain-smoking give him an additional angle on Tony’s struggles. For Tony, however, the similarities he has with his character are more of a problem. Peter’s constant demand for more realism, more method, leads him back into a mindset he had been trying to escape, and pretty soon he’s hitting the bottle again. He’s also troubled by the Catholic element of the thing, suffering from brief flashbacks which suggest he was abused by a priest as a child. Though he still makes occasional visits to confession, the sight of a clerical collar can easily put him on edge.

We gain insight into Tony’s world in large part through his relationship with his daughter, Leigh (Ryan Simpkins). The two have been estranged for many years but she comes back into his life after being expelled from her college, St Agatha’s – it won’t take viewers long to guess why – and he gets her a job as a PA on the film. Her own crisis of faith – the faith necessary to stand by a loved one who is an addict – provides an interesting additional layer of story, and her vulnerability in the face of his rage adds to the tension. She also brings heart to the film when Tony is at his most obnoxious and in danger of losing audience sympathy, both through her feelings for him and the connection she builds with one of the film’s other stars, Blake (R&B artist Chloe Bailey). Her presence brings with it echoes of The Exorcist’s concern with young women’s sexuality and patriarchal reactions thereto.

As the son of Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in Friedkin’s film, the director grew up surrounded by Exorcist lore, and that reveals itself here through the multitude of little references which will delight fans but are well enough built into the structure of the piece to avoid becoming a distraction. The filming of the exorcism scenes themselves is a particular delight, recalling Friedkin’s insistence on doing it over and over again until it fit his vision, driving the actors crazy in the process. There’s also the occasional reference to other cult films, including Leigh wielding a striplight Subway-style as she goes exploring in the dark.

Miller relies a lot on darkness, between the set and the recesses of Tony’s vast, gloomy apartment. Often we’re plunged into it suddenly, which feels a bit of a cheap trick for an otherwise sophisticated film, and loses its power as it’s overused. He keeps the overtly supernatural to a minimum most of the way through, and the film is much stronger for it. There is plenty of tension to be found elsewhere. Even the priest brought on set as an advisor (played by David Hyde Pierce, who bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Friedkin’s religious advisor, Thomas Bermingham), looks for psychological explanations first – as real exorcists are trained to – and tries to find practical means of supporting Tony and Leigh.

Whilst Miller should probably be credited for maintaining this approach for as long as he does, he can’t do so forever. This means that those looking for traditional religiously-inspired scares will eventually get what they want, which will likely boost the film at the box office, whilst others may find themselves frustrated. The way the female characters are diminished at the end feels particularly disappointing, despite a brief effort to atone for this in the melancholy epilogue. There is an interesting message about forgiveness buried in there, which might remind viewers of the superior A Dark Song. If this film ultimately disappoints, it’s only because it shows so much promise early on, and that means that there’s a good deal to enjoy – and even admire – along the way.

Reviewed on: 15 Jun 2024
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A troubled actor begins to exhibit a disruptive behaviour while shooting a remake of The Exorcist. His estranged daughter wonders if he's slipping back into his past addictions or if there's something more sinister at play.

Director: Joshua John Miller

Writer: MA Fortin, Joshua John Miller

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Simpkins, Blake Holloway, Sam Worthington, David Hyde Pierce, Adam Goldberg

Year: 2024

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: US

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