Review: Russell Crowe Stars in The Exorcism, a Flailing Attempt to Channel Some of the Genre’s Scares and Sensibilities

If you’ve ever wanted to see the cinematic equivalent of a vulture picking the last bits of flesh off the bones of a long-dead animal, allow me to introduce you to The Exorcism, directed and co-written by Joshua John Miller, also the co-writer of the very fun film The Final Girls and the son of actor Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in The Exorcist. Lest you think this new film and the William Friedkin classic are somehow connected, they aren’t, but they most definitely are; lest you think this new film is related in any way to another recent work starring Russell Crowe, The Pope’s Exorcist, they are not, but The Exorcism would really like for you to think they are. I’m guessing the people distributing this film would like us to think that the son of such a renowned actor could bring insight into this ridiculous story that literally seeks to pick apart the production of a film that is clearly an Exorcist remake, but boy, he does not.

Crowe plays Anthony Miller (seriously?), a past-his-prime actor whose thriving career, we’re told, was sidelined because of the death of his wife, which led him to booze and drug addiction and in turn blew up his relationship with his only child, daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins). When the film opens, Lee has been suspended from school and spends the suspension on the set of his new movie, one that could reignite his career, playing a weary priest investigating a supposed case of a possessed girl, played by actor Blake (Chloe Bailey). In this fictional film entitled The Georgetown Project, Miller’s priest is also burdened with guilt and shame about a great many things, and Miller and his director (Adam Goldberg) work to pull out a sorrowful, dramatic performance using instances from Miller’s past (including his traumatic years as an altar boy) to inform the character and charge the film with realism. Also on hand to consult is a real-life priest (David Hyde Pierce’s Father Conor), but every interaction he has with Miller leads to some kind of midsize breakdown on the actor’s part.

We also learn that Miller got the part when the previous actor (Adrian Pasdar) hired to play the priest died mysteriously on the set of the film. Sam Worthington plays a young priest who assists Crowe's character in the eventual exorcism. So at its core, The Exorcism isn’t a horror movie at all; it’s a behind-the-scenes drama about the making/remaking of a scare movie that has very few scares of its own. But eventually we discover that the set is haunted or possessed or being messed with by a demon who is using Miller’s fully exposed emotions to squeeze its way into his soul and possess him. At one point, someone even says something about how the movie within a movie isn’t actually a horror movie but more of a psychological drama, because allowing our tiny brains to figure that out on our own would have been too much for this movie.

As a profile of a troubled actor attempting to stumble his way to a comeback, this movie might have been something worth checking out. Instead, these horror elements stomp all over the most interesting material. What we’re left with is a dumb, senseless exercise that thinks flashing the lights and dubbing in demon voices for some of its characters passes for horror these days. There’s exactly one functional jump scare, and the rest of what's here is laughable. I noticed Kevin Williamson (who wrote the best of the Scream films) is a producer on The Exorcism, and again I ask “Who cares?” Other than the fact that the film uses a meta-heavy screenplay (co-written with M.A. Fortin), there are no traces of Williamson’s specific brand of fun or intelligence.

I realize that Crowe is meant to look weary and miserable in this film, but I’m pretty sure he was going method on this performance, which puts Miller through the paces, and the results are laughable in all the wrong ways. Simpkins as the daughter is that special brand of mopey that makes me never care if the teenager lives or dies. The mythology and logic established in various spots during The Exorcism don’t make sense and the parts that do aren’t adhered to in the slightest in the course of this relatively short work. The other unfortunate thing about this film is that it’s being released in the midst of a pretty solid year for religious-themed horror movies, and this doesn’t even dare to step in the same room as those far better outings. In case you couldn’t tell, I loathed this movie.

The film is now playing in theaters.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
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.