‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review: A Reboot Too Painstaking To Be Horrifying

'Believer' brings back Ellen Burstyn from the original, and gets the feel of that 1973 classic right. But despite double the number of possessed little girls, it's just not as scary.

Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum in The Exorcist: Believer. Universal Pictures

Call me The Exorcist: Skeptic, but I had a lot of doubts going into The Exorcist: Believer. I’m a fan of what director David Gordon Green and his crew did with their trilogy of Halloween films, which discarded most of the messy continuity of the franchise while bringing original star Jamie Lee Curtis back into the fold. I was worried that Believer, the first of a planned trilogy of new Exorcist films that, likewise, brings back leading lady Ellen Burstyn but avoids reference to all previous sequels, would be a lazy reprisal of a successful gimmick. The Exorcist: Believer completely sidesteps this expectation, revisiting the broad strokes of its acclaimed source material while treading very different thematic ground and standing firmly as its own work. I still did not like it very much, but “lazy” is the last word I’d use to describe it. Believer is a film wherein everyone’s effort — effort to underline a message, effort to deliver a nuanced performance, effort to be visually interesting, effort to shock the audience — is all a little too visible on screen. Intellectually, I can get behind almost all of it, but on a gut level, the level where horror lives and breathes, it does very little for me.

Directed by: David Gordon Green
Written by: Peter Sattler, David Gordon Green
Starring: Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Ellen Burstyn
Running time: 111 mins.

Leslie Odom Jr. plays Vincent Fielding, a widower who is raising his thirteen-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) alone. Angela yearns to feel close to the mother who she never knew, but Vincent is so protective of her memory that neither father nor daughter can truly move on. After going missing in the woods for three days, Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) return to their harried parents with no memory of where they’ve been, exhibiting signs of a supernatural madness. When modern medicine fails to offer any answers, the faithless Vincent is led to the doorstep of a former skeptic who has spent the past 50 years studying the rites of exorcism: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).

Despite its pedigree, Believer only rehashes The Exorcist to the extent that every movie about an exorcism does. This is a great relief, given how easily this could have become “The Exorcist, but with twice the possessed little girls!” There are some specific callbacks — the film opens with a voyeuristically-shot prologue set in a sunwashed country; one of the possessed child’s parents is notably absent; txhe villain is, implicitly the same demon from the 1973 film — but Believer is not meaningfully beholden to its acclaimed predecessor, to the extent that Burstyn’s involvement feels mostly ceremonial. The scale of her role is similar to that of Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin, The Exorcist’s title character who the film isn’t really about. On paper, this is a wise move, as it should sate fans who want to see Chris’s story continue without upstaging her successor, but her screen time seems painstakingly partitioned to serve this exact purpose. Leslie Odom Jr.’s is the standout performance and theoretically the most interesting character. He’s clearly looking for something beyond the “atheist who lost his faith after a tragedy” archetype common to movies about belief, and I think he finds it, but as with so much else in this film, I feel as if I can see him looking. For their part, the two child actors ably throw themselves into playing freaky, nasty demons, and their performances drawing heavily from Linda Blair’s Regan is fully expected and textually justified. 

Ellen Burstyn and Leslie Odom, Jr. in The Exorcist: Believer. Anne Marie Fox/Universal Picture

Believer has a different perspective on faith and God than the original Exorcist, whose author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty did not believe he was writing a fantasy. For Blatty, the ritual of exorcism is not a metaphor, it’s a procedure performed by experts to remove literal demons from the bodies of human beings. Believer takes a more 21st century approach to fighting supernatural evil, acknowledging the history of exorcism rites across cultures and attempting to vindicate multiple faiths and traditions. And yet, despite this point of view aligning more closely with my own, this effort (there’s that word again) is off-putting, since Vincent and his allies are trying to defeat something literal using something abstract. David Gordon Green wants to have his cake and eat it too, to tell a story that is rooted in a very Catholic fear of damnation while veering away from any specific religious dogma, and it rings to me — an insufferable agnostic millennial leftist, mind you — like a calculated political choice rather than a narrative one. Believer posits a world that is inclusive of all faiths, but which also includes Hell, and that’s an irreconcilable contradiction. If there’s a Hell, that means there’s a God who has created a set of rules, the breaking of which is punishable by an eternity of agonizing torment. There’s nothing abstract about that, much less humanist or cathartic.

Even if it doesn’t work for me, I do applaud the way The Exorcist: Believer takes tonal and visual cues from the original without ever getting cute about it. Green, cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and editor Timothy Alverson (both returning from Green’s Halloween trilogy) frequently adopt a pensive, patient, distant point of view of events that’s in step with William Friedkin’s Exorcist, which only makes its more contemporary jump scares or shocking, aggressive sound editing more off-putting. Believer digs deeper into the scariest part of the original Exorcist, which is the fear of watching one’s child lose their mind and identity. This story efficiently blends the conflicts of original protagonists Chris and Father Karras into a single character (Vincent) and then adds a few new wrinkles for good measure. In many respects, Believer is exactly what I think a requel should be, a reexamination of the ideas of a classic work that retains its essence but is unafraid to take risks and rewrite the rules. But this potential only makes its mediocrity more disappointing, and does little to excite me about the two coming installments.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review: A Reboot Too Painstaking To Be Horrifying