Given the rough track of sequels to the masterful The Exorcist, I should have had lower expectations going into The Exorcist: Believer. The thing is, I liked David Gordon Green's Halloween from 2018. The sequels were a mess but that original outing saw Green modernizing the original Halloween in timely and scary ways. I really dug how it dealt with Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode and her lingering psychological damage from the original film. There is a similar premise here but a lack of conviction. Green makes a series of odd decisions here, including not having an exorcist character play a major role. The title of the film is a bit of a con job.
In place of an exorcist, Green focuses on photographer Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) who is raising his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) alone. Her mom dies in childbirth and makes Victor vow to always protect her. Victor seems to take that as keeping Angela sheltered. He almost doesn't allow her to go to a friend's house after school to do homework. Turns out he was right as Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) go to the woods to perform a ritual instead. They disappear for three days and show up having no recollection of time passing or where they have been. Then those telltale signs of demonic possession start showing up.
Victor is a non-believer, skeptical of any organized religion. His deeply spiritual neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd) is the first to suspect that the girls are possessed. She gives Victor a book about exorcisms which he immediately dismisses. Then in about 2 minutes decides to sit down and read two lines from the book and is convinced suddenly that his daughter is under the control of Pazuzu. It's a wacky moment and sadly there are lots of these in The Exorcist: Believer.
The book was written by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn reprising her role). Chris is quick to help Victor and warns him to not believe is dangerous when it comes to these things. Soon she joins Victor to observe the young girls. Why Chris takes so long to believe in demons is crazy, his daughter is reading minds and has cuts that won't heal.
I want to avoid spoilers here but I have to say what the film does with Burstyn next infuriated me. Why bring this essential character back if all they are going to do to her is this? It's a lame move and it sidelines the best actor in the film. Burstyn brings such a strong and haunted presence to the film but it is discarded after a few minutes.
From there, The Exorcist: Believer only gets worse. There is a sense that the film has been re-edited several times. Much of the actual exorcism that takes up the third act is hard to follow and a mess. We do meet one Catholic priest but the film quickly sidelines him in favor of exploring Victor's need to believe. The film takes on a pro-God bent, unlike the original film which remained skeptical until its final moments.
The original The Exorcist took its time to establish the reality of the situation and characters. We spend the first 30 minutes with Regan undergoing awful medical procedures and doctors try to figure out what is wrong with her. It immediately makes you sympathetic to her. The Exorcist: Believer barely gives us a scene with these girls before they become possessed. The result is a film that never feels grounded, making it hard to care about what happens.