Credit: Fred Norris/Vertical
by Frank Falisi Featured Film Genre Views

The Exorcism — Joshua John Miller

June 20, 2024

Maybe more than any of its brethren of subgenre monsters, the exorcism film The Exorcist (1973) looms large over its brood of descendants. There are good vampire movies that aren’t Dracula (1931), good haunted house ones that aren’t The Haunting (1963). Jaws (1975) is a good comparison, if only for the immediate and unfit knockoffs that followed, but just off the map; both the gonzo-doc Blue Water, White Death (1971) and William Grefé’s Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976) are fitting bookends to the Homeric horror Spielberg chased. There’s something totalizing about The Exorcist that frequently gets lost in other erstwhile speculations on possession, demonic or otherwise. The tempo of edits in The Exorcist pulverizes the spectator, each new time-jump a fresh dislocation in a long process of losing self and control. There is a sense that the film is unsure of its belief system — even as it resolves, shuddering, into something like a happy ending, there is no moral constancy in a Georgetown where desire is barely utterable, belief in anything is a bad ankle, and guilt conquers all.

The temptation to fashion exorcism stories as exercises in control narratives makes sense on paper. The Exorcism (2024) makes sense on paper. In execution, it never quite escapes its identity as peculiarly haunted by Friedkin’s opus. Tony Miller (Russell Crowe) clings to a crumbled relationship with both his teenage daughter, Lee (Ryan Simpkins), and his career as a film actor. A recovering addict and lapsed if unexamined Catholic, Miller wins the role of a Catholic priest in a loose remake of The Exorcist codenamed in-universe “The Georgetown Project.” That Miller got the part replacing an actor who suffered a mysterious on-set demise is the table-setting for his own possession, as his erratic behavior — reminiscent of his struggles with addiction and guilt about abandoning Lee and her mother — assures more jump scares, halfhearted violence, and a capitulation to “the exorcism finale” that must occur, unexamined, in all films of this type

It’s a film that has its director figure (Adam Goldberg) point at Russell Crowe, claiming that you don’t make a horror movie with this kind of actor, you make a psychological thriller. We’re not meant to take this schmuck director’s word to be the film’s consciousness, but the relationship to horror form throughout is tortured, herky-jerk. Tony’s descent into possession is rendered as a switch that gets flipped. And if Crowe is ever the working actor, dutifully doing Nolte-drag in the drab meta-movie-making early on, he’s never allowed to really be a believable monster. The Exorcist isn’t scary because it exploits Regan’s girlish innocence; it’s debilitating because Friedkin ensures the spectator is never aligned with her, is always too far away from knowing. The oblique terror of that film’s ensemble becomes ours. We witness something we can’t stop, and it’s the cuts and jumps that tie us to the rock throttling downhill. The Exorcism is undecided who it’s aligned with. Tony is our central figure, but he functionally blacks out through whole portions. The film wants to make heroic space for Lee, wants even to feature the wizened, wise Father Conor (David Hyde Pierce, ever the welcome sight on-screen, even hiding behind old-age makeup.)

A film obsessed with The Exorcist, directed by the son of Jason Miller and altogether too close and too far from Friedkin’s form and method, is hard to come to grips with, especially when it’s neither particularly scary nor insightful. With the bulk of its principal photography completed by December 2019 and additional filming completed only as recently as February 2023, a vulgarian could be pardoned for suggesting that The Exorcism’s release now seeks to ride the relative goodwill of last year’s The Pope’s Exorcist (2023), which also starred Crowe doing welcome, sweaty genre work. And while that comparison will undoubtedly be made (the marketing department is counting on it), it should be noted that the two films share little aside from their leading man. The failures of Pope — campy, if lazy — are easier to stomach than the failures of The Exorcism, a film that openly strives for comparisons to Cassavetes and Friedkin while possessing few of the internal psychological clocks, in chest or head, that made their nightmare images as lusty as they were horrifying.

The Exorcism wants to tell a story about how shame and abuse combine into monstrous behaviors that infect the people subject to them and embolden further trains of violence. As scripted by director Joshua John Miller and his life partner, M.A. Fortin, the film wants to speak through the prism of real historical violence that the Catholic Church inflicts, especially on children and queer people and women. It’s not a spoiler to say that the trauma Tony refuses to share with his daughter, revealed only to us in elliptical flashbacks, involves the sexual abuse he experienced as an altar boy. To make horror films around Catholicism mandates staring down that system’s most repugnant narratives square in the void. Immaculate (2024) attempts to perform that stare with regard to abortion and reproductive rights, and even Pope’s half-hearted gestures at the network of coverups that were spun in the wake of endemic sexual abuse.

The horror film’s status as social echo is partly why the form engenders so many makings and remakings. As extensions and expressions of our demons, drawing the horror of living and dying in the four edges of the cinema frame allows us to self-atomize without reducing art to a lesson in extraction — there is as much potential for pleasure in re-membering bodies and gooping gore as there is occasion to elegy. It’s fair to wonder if in trying to engage with knotty, essential truths about belief and the long tail of abuse in the Church and elsewhere, The Exorcism’s authors would have done better to follow the advice of Lee, who reminds her father, struggling to learn his lines, that if an actor can’t remember specific lines, it’s because they don’t know why they have to say the words that way in the first place. It’s clear what The Exorcism wants to say and what it wants to be about, but intention only gets an actor halfway. Movies aren’t memories, memorials, or seminars. They’re just the moving around of feelings that engine those entities, in pleasure and pain, a control to play at losing it, if only for a moment.

DIRECTOR: Joshua John Miller;  CAST: Russell Crowe, David Hyde Pierce, Ryan Simpkins, Sam Worthington;  DISTRIBUTOR: Vertical;  IN THEATERS: June 21;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.