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The Exorcist: Believer Emphasizes Sympathetic Characters Over Scares and Spectacle

I’m not going to lie, I went into The Exorcist: Believer with a fair amount of trepidation. While I’m a huge fan of exorcism movies, I also had plenty of reasons to be wary of this film. For example, horror sequels are notoriously tough to get right, and even though I enjoyed two of David Gordon Green’s Halloween movies, Halloween Ends showed that he’s also capable of directing absolute disasters. Nevertheless, I tried my best to give this film a fair shake, and after getting the chance to watch it, I’m happy to report that it’s actually pretty good.

The Exorcist: Believer was directed and co-written by David Gordon Green, and it stars Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, and Ellen Burstyn. It’s about two young girls, Katherine and Angela, who go into the woods one day after school and perform an occult ritual. Angela wants to contact her dead mother, but apparently, the ritual goes terribly wrong. We never find out exactly what happened, but we do know that the girls don’t return home that night.

They remain missing for three days, and when they’re finally found, they say that they thought they were only gone for a few hours. They also act a bit strange, but everybody just chalks it up to the trauma they must’ve experienced. However, it soon becomes clear that there’s something much more sinister at work here, so the girls’ parents eschew mainstream medicine and opt for spiritual help instead.

When most people think of exorcism movies, the first things that come to mind are probably green slime, spinning heads, and gruesome makeup. And The Exorcist: Believer has all those subgenre staples, but for my money, what really makes this film shine is the characters. In particular, there are four that really stood out and won me over.

First, we have Victor, Angela’s father. He’s a single dad, and right from the get-go, actor Leslie Odom Jr. makes the character’s love for his daughter palpable in everything he says and does. The girl is his whole world, so when she went missing, I felt terrible for the guy. Sure, I knew Angela would be found soon enough, but I was so engrossed in the character of Victor and his pain that I simply didn’t care. I wanted him to get his daughter back almost as much as he did, and even after she returned, Victor remained the emotional anchor that kept me invested in this story right up until the end.

A girl looking creepy

Next, we have the two girls, Angela and Katherine. They’re played excellently by Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum, and they’re especially effective once they return from the woods. Seriously, these girls are some of the creepiest possession victims I’ve seen in a while, and even though some of that comes from the makeup and the voice effects, it’s mostly just great performances from these two child actors.

Last but not least, we have to talk about Victor and Angela’s neighbor Ann. She’s played by Ann Dowd, and if you’re familiar with this woman’s work, you know how great she is. She imbues the role with an authority and a gravitas that make you believe every word she says, so every time she entered the frame, I simply couldn’t look away. To be fair, she’s a bit of a side character, so she doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but Ann Dowd’s fantastic performance makes her much more memorable than you might expect.

Those are the four best characters in The Exorcist: Believer, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a bit about the one legacy character, Chris MacNeil, as well. She’s the mother from the original film, and she’s played brilliantly by the same actress, Ellen Burstyn. However, I have to be honest, despite the great performance, I actually wasn’t a big fan of her role in this movie. Granted, much like Ann, Chris also has a dignity and a solemnity that make you hang on her every word, so she’s an absolute joy to watch whenever she’s on screen.

But despite that, she just feels completely shoehorned into the story. In fact, you could’ve removed her from the movie entirely, and it would’ve been exactly the same. She doesn’t impact the narrative in any real way, so even though it was cool seeing Ellen Burstyn play this character again, I was disappointed by how little she actually mattered.

However, on the whole, the characters are hands down the best thing about The Exorcist: Believer, but they’re not the only thing this film gets right. I already mentioned the pleasantly creepy possession victims, and on top of all that, the movie also ends on a really refreshing note. I obviously can’t go into any specifics, but suffice it to say that I was not expecting things to turn out the way they did. It’s not the typical conclusion we’re used to in this subgenre, and I, for one, really appreciated that bold, new direction.

A woman with a cup

On the flipside, The Exorcist: Believer also has its fair share of weaknesses, and truth be told, they almost ruined the entire experience for me. I already mentioned the weak connection to the original movie, and on top of that, this one also handles religion in a very ham-fisted way. It tries to be diverse and inclusive by incorporating into its story other faith traditions besides Catholicism, but it just comes across as a confused and sloppy mish-mosh.

For instance, there’s one religion that seems to be a nondescript traditional African faith, but later on, it seems more like a form of Christianity, and by the end of the film, I honestly had no idea what it was supposed to be. To be fair, this could be a real religion that I’m just not familiar with, but that doesn’t excuse the careless way it’s presented. Even if this is a legitimate religion, it’s not a very well-known one, so the movie should’ve explained it a bit more.

Along similar lines, the final exorcism incorporates all of these different faith traditions, and this is where The Exorcist: Believer feels the most slipshod. The scene comes across as a directionless and arbitrary stream of prayers and rituals, and it gives the impression that the filmmakers were just trying way too hard to be hip and progressive at the expense of narrative logic.

However, despite those problems, I still think the good in The Exorcist: Believer ultimately outweighs the bad. Remember, I said the movie’s flaws almost ruined the experience for me, but at the end of the day, I still walked away pretty satisfied. The excellent characters, creepy horror, and refreshing ending were enough to keep me on board from beginning to end, so if you’re looking for something good to watch this Halloween season, I suggest giving this film a shot. I think you’ll be happy you did.

The Exorcist: Believer is playing in theaters right now.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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