Review: In Revisiting a Classic, The Exorcist: Believer Retreads Familiar Demons

My admiration for filmmaker David Gordon Green, in his days as an indie filmmaker, knew no bounds as he stunned me with great works like George Washington, All the Real Girls, Snow Angels, Prince Avalanche, and Joe. Hell, even his comedic endeavors (Pineapple Express and many episodes of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals) were fun. But his current belief that he needs to update classic horror franchises (namely the recent Halloween trilogy) like The Exorcist is a true disappointment. And while The Exorcist: Believer is easily the best of his horror exercises, it still doesn’t hold a candle to the original or to most actually effective and scary current horror offerings.

Believer centers on Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.), whom we meet 12 years earlier when he and his pregnant wife are vacationing in Haiti when a devastating earthquake hits, putting his wife in the hospital and Victor in a place where he must choose between saving her or their unborn baby. When the film jumps ahead to the present day, single father Victor is raising Angela (Lidya Jewett) as best he can, but both still miss his wife in different ways. They get along great, but she’s at the age where not having a mother figure in her life is taking a toll. 

One day after school, Angela and her best friend Katherine (newcomer Olivia Marcum) walk into the woods after school, presumably taking a shortcut to someone’s house to do homework, when they go missing, sending Victor and Katherine’s parents into a frantic search for their girls. They are found three days later with no memory of what happened to them or how long they were gone (Angela guesses it’s only been a few hours), but they are somehow changed and distant. After some disturbing behavior on the part of the altered girls, it becomes clear that something foreign has gotten into the souls of the pair, and at the behest of his religious neighbor (Ann Dowd), Victor eventually seeks out help from someone who has experienced similar behavior in her own daughter 50 years earlier, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, from the original Exorcist film).

The deliberately subtitled Believer takes a different approach from the original The Exorcist (based on the novel by William Peter Blatty), which was actually about a priest attempting to redeem his feelings of guilt about his mother dying by saving a young girl possessed by the devil. MacNeil believes the same demon has its grip on these two girls and confronts them directly, landing her in the hospital almost as soon as she’s introduced into the film, not unlike what director Green did with Jamie Lee Curtis in his Halloween films—I guess that’s his thing. Before that happens, she talks to Victor about the guilt she feels for writing a best-selling book about her daughter Regan’s possession because it drove a wedge between the two of them. But not wanting to make this film about the super powers of the Catholic church once again, Green opts to include several different religions’ versions of an exorcism to get this demon out of these girls. It’s an interesting approach, and one I wish they’d gone into with more fervor and detail.

Instead, what we get is retread for the entire second half of the film. The first half is actually interesting and unique in its exploration of a different brand of guilt within Victor, who made some decisions in Haiti that never sat well with him—decisions that the demon exploits and brings back to haunt him as he attempts to fight for Angela’s life. Katherine’s parents are also tested by the forces of evil, and eventually the devil that possesses them forces all the parents to make a decision about letting one girl live and one die. At first, they all refuse to choose, but then someone shows signs of weakness and pays the ultimate price. But the whole exercise feels unfocussed and more a case of going through the motions of an exorcism movie, of which we have seen dozens in the last 50 years, all basically ripping off parts of the original The Exorcist.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the performances in The Exorcist: Believer. The young actresses are both quite good, and Dowd makes a strong showing as a nurse who was almost a nun when she was younger, until a youthful indiscretion led her off the path; not surprisingly, the demon uses that against her as well. There are special effects in this movie that almost seem to betray the spirit of the original film, which used effects that were notoriously practical. Above all else, this film made me feel that recent loss of Exorcist director William Friedkin all the more. His strength in making his movies was never forgetting to emphasize characters as a means of underscoring the fear. If we care about these flawed people, their suffering becomes ours. It’s a simple idea that so few filmmakers get right today, and sadly, it’s the downfall of Believer.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.