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Russell Crowe in a Tribute to ‘The Exorcist’

Russell Crowe in a Tribute to ‘The Exorcist’

Following the disastrous debut of David Gordon Green’s 2023 The Exorcist: Believer, the first installment in an intended trilogy of sequels, Universal announced a new direction for the franchise, to be helmed by horror specialist Mike Flanagan. Notably, there’s no indication that the next chapter will attempt a remake of The Exorcist. After all, William Friedkin’s 1973 original, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his novel, stands as one of the most iconic horror films ever made; it won two Academy Awards out of ten nominations and essentially reinvented the genre.

This reluctance to reinterpret a widely revered classic is partly what makes Joshua John Miller’s approach to the original so intriguing. As the son of the late Jason Miller, who played Father Damien Karras in Friedkin’s film, the younger Miller heard plenty about the accidents and deaths associated with the movie. Transforming some of that “cursed” reputation into The Exorcism with a film-within-a-film structure, Miller endeavors to offer a contemporary take on both The Exorcist and the fundamental nature of evil, perhaps a tall order considering contemporary audiences’ familiarity with demonic possession storylines.

The Exorcism

The Bottom Line

Intriguing, but not so engaging.

Release Date: Friday, June 21
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Simpkins, Chloe Bailey, David Hyde Pierce, Adam Goldberg, Sam Worthington, Joshua John Miller
Director: Joshua John Miller

Screenwriters: M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller

Rated R,
1 hour 33 minutes

Given that it’s intended in part as a tribute to his father, naturally the film required a character named “Miller.” Attempting to make a comeback after a descent into drug and alcohol addiction almost destroys his acting career, Tony Miller (Russell Crowe) lands a role in The Georgetown Project, clearly a remake of The Exorcist — although the 1973 film is never mentioned by name.

Despite a shaky audition, it’s Tony’s tortured personal history that convinces demanding director Peter (Adam Goldberg) that he possesses sufficient gravitas for the part. Tony’s defiant daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins), who recently returned home after getting suspended from private school, remains unimpressed, even after he gets her hired as a production assistant.

Playing Catholic priest Father Arlington in the film-within-the-film, Tony is the ostensible star but he experiences debilitating insecurity from the first day of shooting. Reluctantly tasked with investigating an apparent case of demonic possession that has ensnared a young woman (Chloe Bailey) in the clutches of a relentless demon, Arlington struggles to confront the beast, even as Miller searches for appropriate reference points to anchor his character.

Gentle guidance comes from on-set consulting cleric Father Conor (David Hyde Pierce), who helps Tony initially find his footing, although he’s constantly undermined by Peter’s insidious attempts to coax him toward a more authentic performance that mines his abundant private pain.

Relying primarily on low-light locations for the sets of the production stage and Tony’s apartment, the film features few exteriors, contributing to a sense of entrapment and dread for both the characters and the audience. In this oppressive setting, Tony’s self-doubts gradually take over, unsettling both his performance and his mental health.

Although Lee thinks her dad’s increasingly concerning behavior — including sleepwalking, unexplained physical ailments and even spontaneously mumbling in Latin — could be due to him skipping his meds, she eventually grasps that there may be something more sinister afflicting Tony as he attempts to embody the doomed clergyman.

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Director Miller and co-writer M.A. Fortin effectively deployed a similarly meta approach with their script for 2015’s entertainingly offbeat horror-comedy The Final Girls, while the influence of producer and collaborator Kevin Williamson, creator of the Scream franchise, is also evident in the film’s self-regarding perspective.

The filmmakers’ slow-burn approach to building tension proves intriguing at first, as Tony attempts to come to grips with Arlington’s reluctance to become involved with the victim and her mother. Like many a demonic thriller though, the actual mechanism of Tony’s possession remains somewhat vague, perhaps attributable to an earlier tragedy on the production that left some malevolent force lingering on the set awaiting a new victim.

Tony also provides some clues to his complicated emotional history that may point to his susceptibility to evil, revealing his troubled memories about serving as an altar boy, as well as his unbearable guilt from effectively abandoning Lee and her mother after the latter developed cancer.  

Sam Worthington doesn’t get much mileage out of his role as Joe, the actor who plays Arlington’s clerical colleague, but Pierce impresses as the sympathetic and supportive Father Conor, particularly once he’s confronted by evil incarnate in the form of the fully possessed Arlington.  

Taken together though, the script’s rather shaky foundations and Crowe’s bombastic performance effectively derail the narrative in the second half. Although the climactic scenes, which perhaps hew too closely to the original, are striking from a stylistic perspective, by this point Tony Miller, and Crowe with him, have completely surrendered credibility.

The Exorcism represents Crowe’s second recent foray into this particular sub-genre, following The Pope’s Exorcist. At least that 2023 film maintained a cohesive storyline and delivered a plausible conclusion, despite its predictability.

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