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Exorcist sequel is a syncretist, chaotic and dangerously misguided spiritual free-for-all

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Tracey Graves and Leslie Odom Jr. are pictured in a scene from The Exorcist: Believer. Photo: OSV News photo/Eli Joshua Adé, Universal Pictures
Tracey Graves and Leslie Odom Jr. are pictured in a scene from The Exorcist: Believer. Photo: OSV News photo/Eli Joshua Adé, Universal Pictures

Although the horror sequel The Exorcist: Believer (Universal) gets off to a reasonably promising start, it degenerates quickly. In fact, it ends up being a muddle both dramatically and, more significantly, in its treatment of religion.

Director and co-writer David Gordon Green’s take on the demonic possession theme follows the ordeal of widowed father Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.). Victor’s life is initially disrupted when his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) disappears in the company of her schoolmate and friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill).

Although Victor agonises over Angela’s absence, he gets more than he bargained for when both girls eventually return. As the audience knows, the pals had gone into the woods to practice amateur spiritualism in the hope of communicating with Angela’s late mother. To that extent, the screenplay—penned with Peter Sattler—presents a cautionary tale applicable in real life.

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As Victor and Katherine’s parents, Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), try to cope with the duo’s bizarre subsequent behaviour—as well as some inexplicable phenomena—they get religious guidance from nun-turned-nurse Ann (Ann Dowd). They also get less specific advice from self-described exorcism expert Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).

Chris is, of course, the mother of Regan, the victim in a similar incident showcased in the 1973 film that inaugurated the franchise. Although the current movie is intended as a direct sequel to the original and, in that respect, a reboot of the series, the approach of this script to its subject matter departs markedly from the earlier tale.

As adapted from his own fact-based novel by screenwriter William Peter Blatty, and directed by William Friedkin, the Watergate-era picture may have sensationalised matters but at its center was a fairly straightforward confrontation between Regan’s tormentor and two Catholic priests.

The driving away of the devil here, by contrast, takes on the qualities of a circus.

In part, that’s probably attributable to the fact that the more-or-less church-friendly attitude of the earlier movie would jar on contemporary Hollywood sensibilities. What’s presented to the audience, as a result, is a spiritual free-for-all.

There is a well-meaning cleric, Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), hovering around. But his superiors won’t authorise an exorcism. So Ann decides she’ll read from the Roman Ritual herself. Miranda and Tony’s unnamed minister (Raphael Sbarge) also is on hand, loudly reciting verses from the Bible.

This interdenominational broadmindedness is further extended by the inclusion of a female shaman, Dr Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili). She’s out to see what her version of African animism can contribute to the overheated shouting match.

The good doctor’s practices are shown to be just as effective as the prayers of priest or pastor. But the dialogue in some quieter scenes assures us that it’s really interpersonal solidarity that will ultimately send Satan packing.

The production thus promotes a syncretist, humanistic and even vaguely anti-Catholic outlook that could be spiritually dangerous for anyone inclined to take it seriously. On the whole, however, this half-a-century-later follow-up is best dismissed as a bit of chaotic schlock.

The film is rated MA 15+ and contains misguided spiritual ideas, brief gory images, mature references, including to abortion, a handful of mild oaths, a few rough terms and at least one crass expression.

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