Home » ‘The Exorcism’ Works Because of Russell Crowe [Review]

‘The Exorcism’ Works Because of Russell Crowe [Review]

When the poster for The Exorcism first dropped, a certain sect of horror fans was positively gleeful about the fact that Russell Crowe had ostensibly made the same movie twice, in quick succession. However, that’s not the case. This chilly, emotionally-charged offering from director Joshua John Miller (his first in almost 30 years), which he co-wrote with M.A. Fortin, Miller’s partner in both life and work, is different in every conceivable way from The Pope’s Exorcist. From Crowe’s pared-back performance in the lead role to the tone, which skews firmly serious despite the handful of jokes peppered throughout (these are the guys, after all, behind the brilliant meta-slasher The Final Girls).

A cleverly executed and genuinely unnerving opening sequence sets the scene–quite literally since most of the action takes place in and around the set of a horror movie–without the need for any mood-sapping exposition as a hammy actor falls prey to some unseen demon while practicing his lines for a priest character that’s clearly, and one assumes deliberately, based on Father Karras from The Exorcist (Miller’s father actually played the role in the original movie, muddying the waters further). Crowe’s tortured Anthony, a former star who had a spectacular fall from grace due to his ongoing substance abuse issues, ultimately takes his place, leading the film’s slimy director (played by Adam Goldberg, who utters the word “pal” at one point, Friends fans) to exploit his trauma in order to draw a stronger performance out of the wounded thespian.

The outwardly struggling Anthony, a well-meaning man who’s still hurting from the numerous blows he’s been dealt in life, is ripe for a malevolent demon to take over his body, manipulating the poor soul into doing its bidding while everyone around him assumes he’s fallen into his old habits once again. All the while, worried daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins, all wide-eyed terror and weepy disappointment) does her best to keep everything together even when it seems she’s fighting a losing battle, much like her father, against demons both figurative and literal. Lee has been hired to work as a P.A. on the movie, partly so her father can keep an eye on the wayward teen. This allows Miller to keep the action centered on the set and their apartment building. That creates a feeling of increasingly suffocating claustrophobia as the tension ratchets higher and higher.

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Dysfunctional families are a running theme for Miller and Fortin. We’ve seen it in The Final Girls and now this. But The Exorcism’s biggest weakness is how quickly it barrels ahead to Anthony’s possession. The Final Girls put the fractured mother-daughter relationship front and center to winning effect. But here it feels like more of an afterthought, so we can get to all the shouting and things flying around the room for which people typically come to a religious horror. The pacing is off because Anthony goes off the deep end so quickly (it’s unclear, for instance, whether he’s keeping alcohol in the house, which seems like a massive oversight). We don’t get enough time with him as a normal guy preparing for a big job and juggling a kid. More attention was required to setting up his relationship with Lee, splintered as it may be, so that the big emotional blows in the final act land a bit harder.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here. The Exorcism plays with light and shadows well throughout from some strategically employed motion sensors on a spiral staircase to one expertly timed, brutal kill involving a makeup mirror adorned with ring lights. In a time when movies are lit terribly, especially horror films, it’s heartening to see something that revels in ensuring every detail is fully visible whether it’s the single overhead light hanging above Anthoy and Lee as they share Chinese food and practice his lines or the shadows falling on Crowe’s face, emphasizing how worn and craggy his features are (Anthony’s world-weariness is palpable throughout). Miller also lovingly captures the art of filmmaking while providing a nerdy glimpse behind the scenes for horror fanatics.

At the center of it all is Crowe, giving one of his most devastating performances yet. The differences between what he’s doing in the movie itself and in the movie-within-the-movie are incredibly subtle and nuanced, demonstrating just how much control the Aussie has over his craft. It’s a wonderfully empathetic performance brimming with barely concealed pain, a lifetime of regrets threatening to spill out of him at any moment, and what makes it even more impressive is just how brilliantly Anthony is juxtaposed against the knowing campiness of Crowe as the eponymous Pope’s Exorcist.

The more fun role, as it were, is in this case gifted to David Hyde Pierce, who’s devilishly great casting as Father Conor, a local priest assisting on the movie in a professional capacity who helps Lee when her dad begins to spiral. Pierce plays it with a knowing wink and a twinkle in his eye, delivering lines like “My eyes are up here” in a way only he can, but there’s also a dignified fear about Father Conor when he’s called to action. The fact there’s little we haven’t seen before in the possession scenes isn’t too much of a complaint considering David Gordon Green’s execrable Exorcist: Believer is still fresh in our minds. At least The Exorcism has its own reasonably unique style, not to mention some spirited performances, including from supporting characters like Chloe Bailey’s up-and-coming actor (who takes to her own Linda Blair moment with aplomb). Likewise, her blossoming relationship with Lee is seamlessly integrated without the need for a big, clichéd coming out moment.

It’s impossible not to be charmed by a movie where a line like “My name’s not Tony, it’s Dad,” is not only delivered with absolute sincerity but also pays off in a big way later on when the character in question is possessed by a demon. The Exorcism may not be rewriting the rule-book for religious horror, and it pales in comparison to something like The First Omen with a distinct lack of attention paid to the demon itself as well as its backstory, but during a moment when these kinds of movies are clearly back in vogue, it gets more right than wrong. And Crowe is flawless in the leading role. Double-bill with The Pope’s Exorcist if he really breaks your heart in this.

Director(s): Joshua John Miller
Writer(s): M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller
Stars: Russell Crowe, Ryan Simpkins, Chloe Bailey, David Hyde Pierce
Release date: May 30, 2024 (US), June 21, 2024 (UK and Ireland)
Language: English
Run Time: 95 minutes

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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