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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Maybe it’s altogether fitting that actor Anthony Miller’s return to  the screen would take place in a horror movie. After all, Tony feels like he’s coming back from the dead.

He had been a big deal in Hollywood—once. But that was before his wife died of cancer. Before Tony tried to numb all his pain and grief with alcohol. Before Tony had wrecked his relationship with his daughter, Lee.

But 16-year-old Lee’s back now. (A little unwillingly, perhaps, but it’s amazing what a near-expulsion from boarding school will do.) And Tony? He says he’s back, too, clean and sober and ready to work. Yeah, he’s been gone a while. But he believes that his acting chops are still intact. And he’ll do whatever it takes to prove it.

Even play a priest.

Tony and the Catholic Church have been a bit estranged themselves. Though he was an altar boy back in the day, the experience left him scarred: He walked away and never looked back. Now, he must step into the role of an exorcist—one carrying his own spiritual baggage even as he tries to free a young girl of demonic possession.

He wasn’t the first choice for the gig. In fact, another guy got the part—and he was doing just fine right up until he died. The actor was battling depression, they say. He committed suicide, they say. Too bad, so sad, but the show must go on. Enter Tony, stage right—a broken actor determined to piece his career back together. And Lee, hired as a gopher, comes along for the ride.

Blake Holloway, the star playing the possessed young girl, isn’t so sure that the previous actor’s death was a suicide. She’s heard all the weird stories about what happened on the sets of other supernatural horror flicks: The Exorcist. The Omen. More. So she sprays herself with the scent of sage every day, just to keep any evil spirits at bay.

Lee finds it laughable. It all feels so ludicrous. And while Tony still has a kernel of faith deep down inside him, brandishing crosses and shouting prayers seems oh so 12th century.

The fact that he’s sleepwalking again? Surely it’s just stress. The blackouts? Must be the new medication he’s on.

Nope, Tony will shake all that off. He has no time to waste. He’s determined to prove that he’s back with this role. That he’s crawled out of his alcohol grave and is among the living once again. And he’ll go right to the edge to find the truth in his character. He’ll make any sacrifice.

He’ll do whatever it takes.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the sections below.]

Positive Elements

Tony’s and Lee’s relationship starts pretty chilly as The Exorcism opens, and we get why. Tony was—let’s admit it—a pretty terrible dad for a few years.

But this father and daughter do love each other, and we see some really tender moments between the two. That’s especially true as Tony slowly slips into the clutches of mental illness and/or alcohol abuse and/or possession (the film initially holds its cards close to its vest in terms of what’s actually happening to him). Lee does everything she can—in some extremely discomfiting circumstances—to keep her dad safe and, as much as possible, functioning. She speaks tenderly to him. She gently treats a cut on his hand. She even stuffs his meds directly into his mouth when Tony seems incapable of doing it himself.

Tony knows that he wasn’t always a great father. He makes some halting steps to try to heal his relationship with Lee, but he has a hard time connecting. But finally, he does. “I love you,” he tells her. “I need you to know that.” And both of them know how much he means it.

Tony is just playing the part of a priest, but there’s a real Catholic priest on call here, too—the film’s religious consultant, Father Conor. He’s also a psychologist. And as Tony begins to spin out of control, he does what he can to help—mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And ultimately, he shows a willingness to sacrifice for others.

Spiritual Elements

The Exorcism is, as you might expect, steeped in religious, specifically Catholic, elements.

The movie that Tony is starring in is a thinly veiled remake of The Exorcist, the working title of which is The Georgetown Project. In The Exorcism’s film-within-a-film conceit, Tony’s character carries a crucifix and totes around a book of Roman Catholic rituals, and Tony’s lines are loaded with prayers and spiritual exhortations that namecheck the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, along with a literal litany of saints and angels.

Tony struggles to memorize those lines and to keep all those saints straight. Said saints and angels aren’t real to him, so the lines feel “silly,” he says. And that’s even more true for Lee, who openly mocks the movie’s dialogue throughout much of the first part of the movie.

But—spoiler alert—they have all sorts of reason to change their religious stance as the movie goes on.

The first real hint comes when Lee records Tony chanting something in Latin. When she takes the recording to Father Conor, he says Tony is saying something about calling down Molech (a Canaanite god mentioned in the Bible and the demon at the center of The Georgetown Project) and sacrificing children. Father Conor downplays this outpouring of Latin—but as soon as Lee and her friend leave, he grabs a thick book and begins to do some research.

Tony is indeed possessed by a demon, and we see plenty of evidence of that. Other spiritual activities take place on the set, as well. And even though the director of The Georgetown Project insists that the film is a “psychological drama wrapped in the skin of a horror movie,” The Exorcism eschews such ambiguity. The film stresses that spiritual attacks require a spiritual counterattack, and that counterattack is very much dependent on the Christian God. Turns out, those “silly” prayers prove pretty effective.

We see pictures of Molech presiding over sacrifices and flashes of holy and unholy symbols. In flashback, a priest appears to force a young man to take part in a mockery of the Eucharist—forcing a blood-red wine down his throat, stuffing a wafer into his mouth and scrawling a crimson cross on the teen’s forehead.

This last bit comes with a bit of metaphorical meaning: Tony, we’re essentially told, was abused by priests when he was an altar boy, and the film seems to suggest that that act both upended his faith and, possibly, made him vulnerable to the movie’s demon much later. The film’s director pries that vulnerability evermore open, remining him of that abuse (which Tony has never talked about) as well as Tony’s own terrible mistakes. The director chose Tony because of his history and because of those mistakes—choosing him to play a priest who comes in with a lot of baggage of his own.

“You are irredeemable,” the director hisses to Tony. “You hear me? You’re him.”

These lies are repeated. Words to that effect are scrawled across a script. The demon tells him, and Lee, the same things. But The Exorcism suggests otherwise.

We see Tony in a confessional booth a couple of times, unpacking his sins. Crosses hang from a rearview mirror.

Sexual Content

Lee walks in on Tony, nude. (We see his exposed rear.)

Lee is attracted to other women. She makes reference to a “girlfriend” early on, and she clearly has a crush on Blake (the girl playing the possessed daughter in The Georgetown Project). Lee and Blake ultimately become a thing, and we see them kiss and begin to make out.

The film appears to give this relationship a pass. As Lee, Blake and Father Conor prepare to face the demon, the priest says, “You are children of God,” and He loves the girls “just as you are. Have faith. He will protect His children.”

Possessed Tony, meanwhile, walks in on Lee and Blake’s make-out session and encourages them to go on—using incredibly crass language to describe what they should do to one another. And possessed Tony insinuates that he will be having sexual relations with his daughter, too.

Violent Content

Those insinuations quickly become violent: Still using some pretty graphic, sexually charged language, possessed Tony throws Lee on a kitchen island and tries to force himself on her—rubbing her face with his own bloodstained face and nearly licking her. That sexual attack ends when Blake hits Tony with a teapot.

While that might be the most shocking instance of violence, it’s hardly the most gory.

A character gets a face-full of glass shards—a long piece penetrating an eye—before being choked to death. Tony’s predecessor seems to die from demonic strangulation, his throat bearing supernatural wounds as he chokes. Someone purposely falls from a window. Another character is tortured by prayer before being consumed by fire. Under the influence of a demon, a character bends unnaturally backwards, the cracking and snapping bones sounding like a crackling fire.

A stage light falls—nearly hitting the director. Tony is covered in blood, presumably his own, but doesn’t know how he got injured. Later, Lee treats a cut on Tony’s hand with rubbing alcohol (a process that clearly hurts him).

During the filming of The Georgetown Project, Blake is made to look pretty horrible in her possessed state, her face covered with scratches. We hear that Tony’s wife died of cancer. Tony’s shoulders are sometimes pocked with blackish marks.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 40 uses of the f-word (one of those paired with Jesus’ name) and seven of the s-word. We also hear “a–” and “crap.” God’s name is misused three times, twice with “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is misused five times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

As mentioned, Tony essentially checked out of life after his wife died of cancer, spending two years incapacitated by alcohol and drugs. (It took him another two years to climb out of that state.)

It’s hard to say whether he ever stopped drinking completely. A pre-movie party held at Tony’s flat is filled with champagne and other alcoholic beverages, and Lee clears away a few empty beer bottles after she and Tony have been working on Tony’s lines. But Tony’s clearly supposed to watch his alcohol consumption: He toys with an unopened beer bottle, as if weighing whether to drink it, and later he chugs whiskey straight from the bottle.

Blake and Lee smoke a marijuana joint. We hear several references to Tony’s new medication. Tony smokes a cigar.

Other Negative Elements

A naked, possessed and sleepwalking Tony urinates on the floor. (We see it pool around his feet.) Tony’s director tries to play on Tony’s shame and insecurities to spark a memorable performance; he belittles Tony’s abilities constantly, both to his face and to others, including Lee. We hear the director insinuate that Tony left his wife, too, when she still needed him and was wetting her bed.

We hear that Lee was expelled from school (later changed to a simple suspension) for dumping red paint on the superintendent’s car.

Conclusion

As I mentioned earlier, Tony struggles to memorize his priestly lines for The Georgetown Project. All those angels? All those saints? Who can keep them all straight? Lee sees those dialogue as reflecting of an out-of-touch Catholic Church: “Archaic, patriarchal, outdated,” she says. No wonder he can’t memorize the lines, given their lack of relevancy. Tony says it’s not quite that: “It just sounds silly.”

The secret, Lee reminds him (parroting a lesson he taught her years before) is to really know what those lines mean. To feel them. “It’s an exorcism,” Lee says, referring to The Georgetown Project’s central scene, “So he has to believe in these words with the whole of his being.”

Belief. That’s a core component in The Exorcism and its surprisingly sincere rumination on faith. And it walks hand-in-hand with another core tenant of Christianity: forgiveness.

Perhaps Tony isn’t quite sure if he believes in God when the movie begins (even though he does go to confession beforehand). But even if he believes in the Almighty, he also believes that he’s beyond that Almighty hand because of the abuse he suffered as an altar boy; because of the way he abandoned his dying wife and his desperately lonely daughter.

Tony, the actor, doesn’t believe God can saved the possessed girl. Tony, the person, doesn’t believe God can save him.

It’s a pretty powerful setup for a fairly disappointing movie.

The Exorcism has lofty narrative ambitions, and some faithful ones at that. But it suffers from inconsistency. And even if its supernatural underpinnings won’t push Christians away, its R-rated content probably will. The story stresses that these “archaic” rituals are an important defense against the demonic, but it also sweeps away 2,000 years of biblical thought on same-sex relationships. It curses with abandon. It sheds blood without pause. For Christians, all those elements make it plenty scary. But for horror fans, it’s probably not scary enough.

I really appreciated a lot of what The Exorcism was trying to do. Its ruminations on belief are interesting and, sometimes, resonant. But I also believe that, ultimately, The Exorcism falls short.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.