‘The Exorcism’ Is a Bumpy Ride That Doesn’t Quite Have Faith In Itself

Russell Crowe versus the devil, and not a Vespa in sight.

The Exorcism
By Rob Hunter · Published on June 25th, 2024

Possession horror movies are typically rather dull affairs, in part because they often try too hard to copy William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) in one way or another. The innocent victim, the troubled man of faith, the coarse supernatural antics of vile entities, the triumphant denunciation of evil. 2023’s The Pope’s Exorcist dodged that bullet by finding a fresh spin, a sense of fun, and real personality — along with a Vespa-riding Russell Crowe — and now Crowe is back in the collar for a wholly unrelated exorcist tale called The Exorcism. Don’t let the bland title fool you, though. This one takes a road less taken too even if its meta footing can’t hold that road nearly as well (as a Vespa).

Anthony Miller (Crowe) is a widower, a single dad, a washed-up actor, and an addict who can still taste the alcohol he gave up less than a year ago. He’s struggling to connect to his teenaged daughter, Lee (Ryan Simpkins), who’s recently been suspended from school and refuses to call him dad. A preproduction incident on the set of an upcoming horror remake — it’s never mentioned by name, but the movie within the movie is meant to be a remake of The Exorcist — leaves an opening in the lead role as a priest battling for the soul of a young woman. Miller lands the job and brings Lee aboard as a PA as an opportunity to bond, but joy soon curdles as something evil settles within him. What do you do when it’s the exorcist who needs an exorcism?

There’s enough in that setup to make for a fairly straightforward piece of possession horror, but terrible title aside, The Exorcism isn’t interested in being straightforward. Rather than simply let that story unfold, director/co-writer Joshua John Miller instead takes a more meta approach, both onscreen and off. You see, not only is Miller a past child actor — River’s Edge (1986), Near Dark (1987) — but he’s also the son of actor Jason Miller, who famously played the doomed Father Karras in The Exorcist. The film feels, in many ways, like a defensive attack against the Catholic church and Hollywood, two towering entities known for chewing up and spitting out the innocent. The ideas are unavoidably intriguing, but the devil is in the details.

The script, by Miller and writing partner M.A. Fortin, is something of a surface level riff on the well-documented troubles that faced Friedkin’s film during production. It’s not trying to match the real-life problems they faced, but the director of The Georgetown Project — the film within the film’s title — played here by Adam Goldberg, is portrayed as a controlling, demeaning, and oblivious prick who pushes Anthony in increasingly insensitive ways. Once the actor starts behaving strangely, it’s assumed by everyone that he’s back on the sauce due to the stress and pressure. That they continue to think that even after witnessing his face change before their eyes and his body float in the air, well, Hollywood folks are self-centered and stupid, apparently.

The church, meanwhile, is dealt a two-pronged poke starting with the presence of Father Conor (David Hyde Pierce) who’s on-set as an advisor despite being a man long lacking in faith of his own. It’s revealed that Anthony was molested by a priest when he was a child serving as an altar boy, and Miller films the first meeting of Anthony and Father Conor as if their paths had crossed before. Nothing’s done with the implication, though, and the minor age-gap difference between the two actors makes it unlikely anyway, but it’s just one of many threads that feels untethered and flapping in the breeze. Lee is given a romance subplot, a younger actor (Sam Worthington) has a dilemma over replacing the declining and unstable Anthony, and Anthony himself is tempted back by the bottle.

Miller clearly has a lot on his mind with The Exorcism, and it increasingly starts to feel as if the horror aspect of it all is actually the element he’s least interested in. Goldberg’s director character describes his remake as a “psychological drama wrapped in the skin of a horror movie,” and that’s actually a fair assessment of The Exorcism itself. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, obviously, but it all gets more than a little cluttered as the third act ramps up the very horrors that those earlier themes seem indifferent to. Jump scares, shadow play, CG assists to contorting faces — genre beats start dropping fast and furious while character elements slowly diminish.

Miller and Fortin previously gifted genre fans with 2015’s The Final Girls, a horror/comedy that takes an even more meta approach while also delivering laughs, thrills, and genuine emotion. It’s a terrific film, and the promise that Miller showed as director there are noticeable here in smaller doses. The opening featuring a priest walking through an ominous home sees the camera pull back to reveal it as a soundstage, and it’s both a great visual and a tease regarding the artificiality of Hollywood. Too much of it feels far less inspired, though, leaving the film’s tone and atmosphere more than a little unmoored. His camera rightfully loves Crowe, though, and the actor once again compels your attention as he faces problems both familiar and supernatural.

Whether by original design or by belabored post-production efforts — the film was shot in 2019 and has been in the can since 2020 for various reasons — The Exorcism feels as if it’s being pulled in opposing directions. The metaphor of it all, whether for the soul-sucking nature of Hollywood and the church or for Jason Miller’s experience during and after The Exorcist, remains interesting, and there’s a far more controlled take on it all that exists (probably still in J.J. Miller’s head) waiting to be told. The horror beats that eventually take over, meanwhile, are all a bit too generic. Still, as it stands, those ideas and Crowe’s dedicated presence are enough of a draw here to make the film worth a watch. Or you could just skip it and rewatch The Pope’s Exorcist

Related Topics: Horror, Russell Crowe

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he’s so damn young. He’s our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists ‘Broadcast News’ as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.

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