The Reverend Cotton Marcus is an exorcist who doesn't believe in God.
You'd think that'd be a problem. But even agnostic pastors have bills to pay, so Cotton swallows his disbelief, arms himself with a bevy of cheap props and casts out hypothetical demons from folks who can pony up.
Is he a fraud? "Your word, not mine," he tells a camera crew. The way Cotton sees it, he's peddling a message of hope to those who need it most—a pastor pushing a supernatural placebo. Cotton feeds his subjects' delusions in order to expunge them, and he sees his "exorcisms" as theatrical self-help sessions. And if his whiz-bang bag of tricks don't completely rid his subjects of what ails them, well, at least no harm's been done, right?
Lately, though, Cotton's been having second thoughts. He's read the story of a little boy who was accidentally killed—smothered with a plastic bag—during a so-called exorcism. And he decides he can't keep up the facade any longer. Not that he's going to ride quietly into the spooky night. Not Cotton. If he has to bow out, he's going to take everybody else in the "business" with him by exposing exorcism for "the scam it really is."
His final subjects are the Sweetzers. And he's invited the film crew to tag along.
Louis Sweetzer suspects that his 16-year-old daughter, Nell, is killing the family's livestock while in the throes of possession. And that's just preposterous, Cotton thinks. He knows that the only demons plaguing this girl (just like all the others) are psychological: the death of her mother and the virtual seclusion in which she lives. But he's being paid to rustle up some demons, so he ties some strings to a bed to make it shake, fires up his smoke-generating crucifix and goes to work, supposedly "cleansing" Nell of the devil inside.
After collecting a fistful of cash, he drives away, happy the whole thing is over and the camera crew got some pretty cool footage.
And then Nell shows up in Cotton's motel room, tranced out and wiggy. And at that moment, maybe—just maybe—Cotton begins to wonder who's playing whom.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Cotton may lack scruples, but he has a conscience. And when Nell shows up in his room, he tries to get her the help he thinks she needs, whisking her to a local hospital. When they take her back home, Cotton pleads with Louis to let her see a psychologist. And when he later finds Nell chained to her bed, he sees to it that she's cut free. (Not a great idea, as it turns out, but the thought is nice.)
As the story trundles on, Cotton and his ever-present camera crew begin to suspect that Nell has yet more reason for instability: She's pregnant—perhaps by her own father. So Cotton and crew do their best to protect her from what they perceive to be her biggest threat. When Louis makes it clear he'll free Nell's soul with the blast of a gun if he has to, they make plans to save her life.
This gives away a lot, but it's important: Louis—whom Cotton believes to be, at best, a religious nut job and, at worst, an incestuous monster—turns out to be truly the only guy who has a clue what's going on with his daughter. He loves Nell in the most fatherly of ways, and he'll go to any length to help her.
"If you believe in God, you have to believe in demons," Cotton tells the documentary crew.
And that's perhaps the most important line in the film. For at its core, The Last Exorcism is the story of Cotton's faith.
He begins the movie without it—a showman who playfully blends banana bread recipes into his Bible-thumping sermons. The son of a charismatic minister, he's been privy to countless bits of trickery in the name of God. But while Cotton's dad may still believe in spite of his deceptions, Cotton has lost any real faith he had as a boy. At times, he wonders whether he ever had it at all. And because we see the world largely through Cotton's eyes (and those of his secular documentarians), the faithful come across as gullible yokels and their leaders as something far worse.
Then, in the wake of that final "exorcism," Cotton's unbelief is challenged in the most unsettling manner. When Cotton learns that Nell can't wear a cross because it burns her, he passes it off as a nickel allergy. When she throws up in his hotel room, he simply takes her to the hospital. But other things are more difficult to explain away: She seems to know Latin—an unusual skill for a 16-year-old raised in backwoods Louisiana. When she's locked in rooms by herself, Cotton can hear other voices talking. And then there's that creepy way she dislocates her back.
By the end of the film, there's little question in Cotton's mind that demons are indeed quite real—which means, using his own logic, that God must be real too. When Nell gives birth to a demonic infant whom a Satanist (disguised for most of the movie as a respected preacher) tosses into the fire, Cotton strides out from his hiding place, cross in hand, trying to send a real demonic force back to the place from whence it came. (We get the idea that the results aren't pretty.)
We see crucifixes hanging in the Sweetzer house, watch as people brandish Bibles and witness various bouts of prayer—both sincere and insincere. We learn that Louis pulled Nell out of a local church school (it wasn't "medieval" enough) and refuses to take Nell to a counselor because "psychiatry is not of God." Nell's brother, we hear, became very angry with God after his mother died. Several folks talk about demons and ghosts and UFO landing spots. Some of the locals are Satanists, and the Sweetzer farmhouse gets wallpapered with countless pentagrams and other occult symbols.
Cotton tells Louis that his daughter is possessed by Abalam, a demon who "defiles the flesh of the innocent." Without exorcism, a victim's only salvation is through death. And Nell, when in the throes of apparent possession, seems to express this supernatural creature's personality by trying to seduce the documentary crew's female director: Nell unbuttons her nightgown and when the director tries to stop her, Nell pulls the director on top of her and begins licking her shoulder and arm. Later, she asks Cotton if he wants a "blowing job."
The paternity of the Nell's child is in question for much of the film. At first, Cotton suspects Nell's father. Then Nell confesses that she had sex with a boy named Logan (and "liked it"). Cotton confronts Logan, but the boy says he's gay.
When Nell strips off her nightgown, the camera catches a glimpse of her bare back.
Nell pounds a cat into a bloody mass of meat. We witness a series of blurs and hear the cat yowling as she strikes it repeatedly with the documentary camera. Then we see what's left of the cat through a broken, blood-spattered lens.
It's the most gory bit of violence onscreen, but it doesn't stand alone. Cotton and Louis inspect dead livestock, and we see entrails spilling from the remains. Nell slices the face of her brother, Caleb. The camera documents the attack's aftermath—a bloody gash that runs slantwise through the boy's mouth. Nell breaks her own fingers, contorts and cracks her body in all manner of unnatural positions. She walks around at times in a blood-soaked nightgown. She attacks the cameraman and cuts Cotton's hand. She tries to drown a baby—which turns out to be just a doll.
In the climactic scene, Nell's positioned on an altar, giving birth. What comes out of her is certainly not human, and the Satanic priest in charge tosses the small form into the fire as part of the ritual. A woman is hacked to death with an ax. (Blows and blood aren't explicitly shown.) A man is killed with a knife. (Their deaths were predicted by Nell's pictures, which show bodies hewn, beheaded and burned.)
In the early stages of the exorcism, Cotton puts electrified wires on his thumbs and presses them into Nell's temples, giving her a shock and making her body twitch. Caleb hurls stuff at Cotton's car and threatens to hurt Cotton if he harms his sister.
Crude or Profane Language
Jesus' name is abused three or four times. God's name is misused a half-dozen. "B‑‑ch," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑" are also said.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Caleb tells Cotton that his father is a "superstitious drunk."
Other Negative Elements
Vomit dribbles out of Nell's mouth.
The questions and themes scurrying around behind The Last Exorcism's bloody facade are stimulating, so far as they go: What happens when a humanistic mind runs smack into a supernatural crisis? Is demon possession real? If it is, are we—cocooned in our cynical, scientific, 21st-century wombs—equipped to deal with it? This is a film that asks us what we do trust and what we should. Most importantly, it's about a pastor who finds his faith instead of losing it. And, in isolation, that's refreshing.
If we take these spiritual messages at face value, we learn that God is real. And so are demons. And that pastors are tricksters. Unless they're Satanists. And that if homeschooling isn't a surefire way to get yourself possessed, going to church-sponsored parties is. And that faith is good. Unless you happen to encounter a demon—in which case it'd be better to drop the cross, stop the recitations and just run, run, run.
It's important to remember, after all, that Cotton finds his faith just moments before presumably being exterminated by a big ol' demon.
So if we look beyond face value … well, there's nothing really there. While everyone who appears in The Last Exorcism seems to harbor a secret, the film itself has none: It isn't deep enough to hide them below the surface. It is what it is—and that's a schlocky, derivative horror flick produced by the same guy who spawned the Hostel movies.
By the end of the film we know the answer to the question asked at the beginning of the review: "Who's playing whom?" The filmmaker is playing his audience. Like Cotton, he fills our minds with lots of flash and weirdness and words that seem like they're important. And then he takes our money.
For real meaning, we're left to look elsewhere.