'The Exorcism' movie review: Russell Crowe is devoured by guilt and horror film cliches

It is a premise with immense potential, and the film partly succeeds in building on it and providing a solid set-up.
A poster of the movie 'The Exorcism'
A poster of the movie 'The Exorcism'

In The Exorcism, Russell Crowe plays washed-up actor Anthony Miller, who signs up for a film like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Miller still grapples with the loss of his wife two years prior and struggles to connect with his estranged daughter, who comes back to live with him after her school expels her. When his daughter (a surefooted Ryan Simpkins) calls him Tony, he tells her, “I am your father; call me dad.”

The early exchange establishes the father-daughter dynamic, albeit a bit too explicitly. And it soon shifts focus onto the film within the film, where Crowe plays a priest devoured by guilt. Miller’s performance fails to live up to the expectations of its production team and director (an in-form Adam Goldberg).

Soon, Miller spirals deeper into addiction, and his grip on reality weakens, blurring the lines between his personal life and his performance as a troubled priest. It is a premise with immense potential, and the film partly succeeds in building on it and providing a solid set-up. However, it all goes downhill in the final act.

That being said, the film does have interesting stretches, like the fascinating exchanges between Goldberg’s director character and Crowe’s actor that give insights into the acting process.

Interestingly, the former is a method director who preys on the actor’s vulnerabilities to make him perform according to the demands of his screenplay. The ways in which he gets under Miller’s skin to manipulate a performance out of the actor are among the fascinating portions of the film. Likewise, when Miller’s mental state deteriorates and his daughter struggles to understand whether his situation is a case of relapse or demonic possession, she seeks the help of a priest (David Hyde Pierce).

The priest tells her that maybe her father is so occupied with his work as a method actor that he brings the method home. For once, an over-the-top Hollywood horror film chooses not to use a priest as an expository character. These are definitely fascinating ideas, and the film does benefit from a solid Russell Crowe performance until the hour mark. However, towards the end, we are inundated with horror film cliches, making many of the exchanges seem like mere mumbo jumbo.

Even Crowe’s performance starts to seem like a distraction and he starts to feel too much like the actor he plays in the film. It is a surprise, for even in The Pope’s Exorcist, his mere presence and performance with a sheepish smile was sufficient to elevate the film from its shallow depths. But this is not the case here.

Writer-director Joshua John Miller and MA Fortin’s screenplay contains some inexplicable flashback sequences that convolute the plot. The film barely reveals the identity of a youngster who faces abuse from an older male.

The victim is possibly a younger version of Miller, and the perpetrator is perhaps his father. But without enough information, you find it difficult to understand. The more you watch the flashback sequences, the more it gives the impression of a screenplay that pretends to have nuance where there is none. As a result, you end up watching the climactic showdown with a strong sense of emotional detachment from the characters.

The other, major dealbreaker is the gimmicky treatment of the otherwise serious material. In some ways, The Exorcism has the potential to be a solid satire about the film industry, much like how Late Night With The Devil is one about television.

In other ways, it has the potential to explore the challenges of being a single parent in the guise of a horror film, as is the case with The Babadook. But The Exorcism squanders its potential and succumbs to the same demonic cliches it deals with.

Film: The Exorcism

Director: Joshua John Miller

Cast: Russell Crowe, Adam Goldberg, Ryan Simpkins, Sam Worthington, David Hyde Pierce

Rating : 2/5 stars

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