Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Exorcist: Believer (2023) dir. David Gordon Green

Opens Friday 10/6


Note: This review contains spoilers. 

The Exorcist has become a pillar of modern cinema—a tragic, poignant, and disturbing story of the violent possession of a young girl, her mother’s relentless love and dedication to bring her back, and the touching sacrifice of two selfless priests to save her. Late director William Friedkin created an untouchable film that stands the test of time and has yet to be rivaled—not by sequels, reboots, or television adaptations.

Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Halloween) brashly takes on Friedkin’s legacy with The Exorcist: Believer, creating a complicated film that works best as a standalone possession film, but not as a sequel to the 1973 classic.

Believer opens with Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), a photographer who is on a trip to Haiti with his heavily pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves). The two separate so that Victor can take more shots of the city while Sorenne rests at the hotel. Suddenly, Haiti is hit with a devastating earthquake that leaves the city in ruin and Sorenne on the brink of death. The doctors give Victor a choice—either his wife lives, or his unborn daughter does.

Lidya Jewett (left) and Olivia Marcum in “The Exorcist: Believer”.

Years later, Victor lives in Percy, Georgia, with his tween daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), with whom he is close. Angela deeply struggles with the loss of her mother and finds solace in fellow classmate and popular girl, Katherine (Olivia Marcum), who teaches her how to summon the dead. After school one day, the girls travel deep into the woods and perform a séance to conjure Sorenne’s spirit but vanish in the process.

They reappear in a barn 30 miles from Percy, despondent and with memory loss, much to the despair of their parents. As their physical recovery begins, they mentally regress. It becomes increasingly evident that the girls brought something evil back with them as demonic possession takes hold of them. Terrified, religious skeptic Victor becomes desperate and approaches Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) for help.

Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil (left) and Leslie Odom Jr. in “The Exorcist: Believer”.

Believer is a decent possession film—but not a good Exorcist sequel.

The biggest issue with Believer is that Green attached it to the beloved classic, and, in the process, disrupted its legacy.

While it was great to see Chris return after 50 years, she felt drastically out of character here. Additionally, her screen time is limited in contrast to what was marketed.

In The Exorcist, Chris is a private person who forms a bond with Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) in the short time she knows them. She is mournful and grateful for the sacrifices they made to save her daughter. Both priests—especially Karras—have been solidified as heroes in modern cinema and within the horror genre.

Jason Miller (left) as Father Karras and Max von Sydow as Father Merrin in “The Exorcist” (1973).

However, in Believer, this legacy is tarnished in a single line. Chris informs Victor that she never actually witnessed Regan’s exorcism. When asked why, Chris shrugs, and sighs, “If you ask me, it was because of their damned patriarchy.”

In scenes like these, it feels as though Green—and his co-screenwriter Peter Sattler—didn’t watch nor read The Exorcist.

Chris didn’t watch Regan’s exorcism because Karras and Merrin forbade her. They weren’t misogynistic, nor did they leave her in the dark and unaware of what her daughter’s exorcism would entail.

She didn’t watch because she was in fear for her life. After Regan smeared vaginal blood on her face (post-masturbating with a crucifix) and struck her down, Chris nearly breaks her neck and back. Not to mention, Regan almost crushes her mother with a wardrobe.

Having Chris infer that Karras and Merrin were patriarchal or misogynistic in any way—when in fact the duo were kind, selfless, decent men who serve as the heroes of both the film and William Peter Blatty’s novel—was hugely disappointing. This single line tore down both characters’ legacy.

Jason Miller (left) and Ellen Burstyn in “The Exorcist” (1973).

Even if Chris was referring to the archdiocese as a whole, and not just Karras and Merrin, it’s inaccurate—Chris didn’t go into Regan’s exorcism because Regan was violent and potentially fatal to interact with.

Additionally, Chris’ life in Believer contradicts everything Friedkin established in the original film. Friedkin painstakingly focuses on Chris and Regan’s bond and the love and trust they have as mother and daughter—something Green does with Angela and Victor, but not at all with Katherine in her parents. In doing this, he loses the emotional connection with his audience.

In Believer, Chris is no longer this private person who’s protective of her daughter.

Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” (1973).

Green has made Chris into a memoirist who exposes her daughter’s trauma and story. As a result, Regan has become estranged from Chris, refusing to tell her where she is. It’s hard to believe—knowing Chris’ love for Regan and her own privacy—that she would publish an exposé without her daughter’s blessing.

In Believer, Chris agrees to visit and observe Angela, who is institutionalized, and Katherine, who is being “treated” at her family home.

Victor and Chris arrive at Katherine’s to find her family cowering in fear, the house ransacked, and Katherine violently possessed. Despite Chris knowing the damage a demon can do and that only a Vatican-approved priest can perform the Rite of Exorcism, she clumsily and illogically approaches Katherine and tries to draw out the demon. In turn, Katherine attacks her with a crucifix and blinds Chris.

Again, perhaps Green isn’t familiar with his source material—given the way Regan’s demon attacked Chris in 1973, killed her friend and director Burke Dennings, made Merrin’s heart stop, and caused Karras to throw himself down the steep, infamous Georgetown staircase, her confrontation with Katherine’s demon on her own makes little sense.

Additionally, becoming blind and hospitalized is not the fate that suits the formidable character of Chris MacNeil.

However, in the film’s final act, Chris is visited by an adult Regan (Linda Blair, in a remarkable cameo). The characters haven’t shared the screen since Friedkin’s film, and despite the circumstances that led to it, it’s a heartwarming scene. It’s the film’s strongest and most effective moment—not because of its fan service and nostalgia, but for the heart at its core.

Ann Dowd in “The Exorcist: Believer”.

Believer has been called an anti-abortion film, and this can’t be further from the truth.

Ann Dowd (Hereditary, The Handmaid’s Tale) portrays Victor’s neighbor who—prior to being a nurse—was a postulant. She tells Victor of her pregnancy, abortion, and her abandonment of the nunhood. She claims that her abortion, and the circumstances that surrounded it, brought her to help Angela. The demon later uses this against her, taunting her for executing her right to choose.

If anything, Believer challenges the pro-Catholic narrative of the devout Blatty’s source material—another bold move made by Green that disrupts The Exorcist’s legacy. Dowd’s priest, Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), comes off as an insecure, spineless coward who’s easily defeated by the demon, in contrast to Karras and Merrin’s heroics and unrelenting bravery detailed in the original film and novel.

While Believer fails as a sequel to The Exorcist, it does succeed as a standalone possession movie.

The film’s soundtrack, composed by David Wingo, gives a chilling, modern update to Tubular Bells. The girls’ demonic voices and SFX were effective and terror-inducing, and the opening scene in Haiti is atmospheric and haunting.

What’s frustrating about Believer is that the bones of a great horror story are there—Green just shouldn’t have tampered with a beloved classic without doing his research.

Instead, he should have created his own original horror flick.

The Exorcist: Believer
dir. David Gordon Green
111 min.

Opens Friday, 10/6 @ Apple Cinema, Kendall Square Cinema, Cinema Salem, and multiplexes everywhere

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