Director Christopher Alender and Marcos Gabriel tell a different kind of exorcism story in The Old Ways. After witnessing her mother’s failed exorcism as a child, Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) was sent from Mexico to the U.S. She returns to Veracruz as an adult for an assignment. She’s supposed to be researching, “a story on the local tribes and culture,” but finds herself in a prison cell with a burlap sack over her head instead. Screenwriter Marcos Gabriel (who previously collaborated with Alender on Memorial Day and Muppets Now) drops breadcrumbs, building toward why she’s there.
According to her abductors, Luz (Julia Vera) and Luz’s adult son Javi (Sal Lopez), a demon possessed Cristina when she visited a mysterious cave called La Boca (Spanish for “the mouth”). Cristina insists that couldn’t have happened because demons aren’t real and begs her captors to contact her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés). And in the meantime, would they please just give her her bag. She doesn’t say it, but there’s some heroin in there and she needs it.
The best part of The Old Ways’ excellent first act is the ambiguity. The audience is forced to wonder whether Cristina is possessed by a demon, or are the problems manifesting caused by her withdrawal. When Miranda says, “This isn’t you. It’s what’s inside you,” she’s right in more ways than one. The addiction as possession metaphor works well, treating addiction more like a disease and less like a choice.
While much of the film’s first act is ambiguous, Cristina’s motivations are never in doubt. She wants to escape, and she’ll do whatever it takes. Whenever an opening presents itself, no matter how small, she scrambles for it. Her fighting spirit keeps her character from feeling stagnant and setting alive. Most of The Old Ways takes place in her cell, a tiny space (though well-designed, covered with chalk drawings of the demons that Luz believes may be possessing her). Her persistent movements make the space feel larger, in a way. Instead of getting bored, Cristina’s will to escape keeps audiences looking for the next way out.
Despite Cristina attempts to break free, Luz and Javi don’t come off as villains because of their unquestionably pure motives. They want to get the demon out of Cristina because, in their minds, it’s the right thing to do. Their good intentions make the way they treat Cristina even scarier. They really are trying to help her when they’re strapping her down and force feeding her goat milk.
Another great thing about Luz is that unlike the exorcists in most possession films, Luz is not a Catholic priest. She’s a Bruja, and her culture informs the decisions she makes and the methods she uses in ways that make The Old Ways stand out in the exorcism subgenre. The arc of those films tend to be a religious minority, almost always an Atheist, being converted into a dominant religion, frequently Catholicism. The Old Ways flips that script with its use of brujería in place of Christanity.
Mexican culture plays a different role in the story for Cristina. While some of her childhood was spent in Mexico, the rest was in the foster care system in the U.S. She’s forgotten Spanish and had lost touch with her family until she started working on this assignment. The contrast makes her both an outsider and an insider. She’s where she was born, but she doesn’t feel like she belongs and is downright condescending at times. But The Old Ways is as much about Cristina being reintroduced to the culture she left behind as it is about her fighting her demons.
Cristina’s struggles to find her identity wrap into the possession story nicely, leading to an excellent ending. Alender and Gabriel do an excellent job of finding new ways to represent the battle going on in the exorcism, making it much more visually dynamic than an old man waving a cross and yelling incantations while someone writhes against their restraints. The Old Ways succeeds because Alender and Gabriel found new life in a tired sub-genre.
Wicked Rating – 7/10