When his daughter, Angela, and her friend Katherine, show signs of demonic possession, it unleashes a chain of events that forces single father Victor Fielding to confront the nadir of evil. Terrified and desperate, he seeks out Chris MacNeil, the only person alive who’s witnessed anything like it before.
The Exorcist: Believer
Release date: 13 October 2023 (UK)
Director: David Gordon Green
Film series: The Exorcist
There have been more Exorcist movies than you might realize and almost all of them are good. One is great. One is a masterpiece.
Is it really fair to hold any of them up against the mastery of William Friedkin’s 1973 original? Well, The Exorcist: Believer flies the titular flag, and brings back Ellen Burstyn to reprise her role as Chris MacNeil, so the film isn’t exactly staying away from it. And with two more Exorcist films on the way, director and co-writer David Gordon Green is nothing if not ambitious.
Green has been here before, recently bringing Michael Myers roaring back to life with his Halloween trilogy. That project came out of the gate with strength and promise, which only made the final two installments that much more disappointing.
This opening statement brings cause for both optimism and worry.
Green’s multiple nods to Friedkin’s original start from Believer‘s opening frame, as Victor Fleming (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his pregnant wife are traveling in Haiti. Tragedy strikes, and we move ahead thirteen years, with Victor raising Angela (Lidya Jewett from Hidden Figures and TV’s Good Girls) as a single father in Georgia.
Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill, in her debut) go missing after a walk in the woods, showing up three days later as very different people. Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) are true Bible thumpers, and their contrast with Victor’s skepticism becomes an important thread that Green will pull to the end.
The girls’ shocking and blasphemous behavior leads Victor’s neighbor (Ann Dowd) to suggest contacting MacNeil, now a best-selling author who has devoted the last 50 years to understanding what happened to her daughter, Regan.
Odom, Jr. delivers a complex but never showy performance that anchors all the fantastical that orbits him. And it’s great to see the Oscar-winning Burstyn back in this role, but her rushed introduction here reminds you of what an effectively slow burn the original employed. Maybe today that’s a harder sell. But as good as all these performances are, you are just not as deeply invested once the fight for two souls begins.
Green does show a good feel for the callbacks, never going overboard and holding your attention with a consistently creepy mood. The girls’ makeup, demonic voices and atrocities combine for a series of solidly unnerving sequences. Nothing may come close to the shocks from the original, but really, what could? You’re not going to put another child actor through what Linda Blair endured.
Still, 1990’s Exorcist III managed two original moments that bring chills to this day, and nothing about Believer feels destined for iconic status.
The storytelling scores by mercifully limiting the Catholicism, as Green embraces the idea that every culture has a ritual for expelling evil. It’s nice to point out that the Catholics don’t hold a monopoly on exorcisms and that maybe horror fans have grown weary of priests and nuns at this point. Green removes the power from an individual faith and empowers the idea of community, where “the common thread is people.”
But while Believer brings in some welcome new ideas, it lacks the confidence to let a path reveal itself without guideposts of undue exposition. Too much of what happens in the third act is telegraphed early or explained late, even saddling the always-great Dowd with a needless, bow-tying monologue.
What made the original great? Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty tied us all up in one man’s shame, his inability to do the right thing, and his crisis of faith just to see him sacrifice himself for an innocent. Friedkin terrified us with the most unholy image one could imagine at that time, closed us in a tiny space with this foul idea, and then released us only when one good man died for us.
The demon is again playing on shame and exploiting grief, ultimately revealing a long held secret that becomes key to the fate of both girls. And while the issue this film raises is worthy and mildly provocative, the question of where the franchise goes next is equally intriguing.
Believer spends two full hours telling the story, and it needs those 121 minutes. But Green doesn’t spend them where he should. He tells us too much, shows us too little, and doesn’t invest our time with characters so we feel for the families. There are scary moments, for sure, but this episode does not feel like a kick start to a beloved franchise or a new vision of evil. It feels like an entertaining sixth movie in a decent series.