David Gordon Green achieves with Friedkin’s seminal film what he achieved with John Carpenter’s Halloween: reinjecting life (and relevance) into a cinema myth.
At the exit of The Vatican Exorcistfun one man show of Russell Crowe as a bawdy priest, we said to ourselves that the “exorcism film” subgenre was one of the subgenres of film that never evolved, always featuring the same things without much variation. In this observation, it was especially important not to include the sequels to the original film: The Exorcist 2: The Heretic, The Exorcist, The Sequel And The Exorcist Dominion all three attempted very original variations (but yes) of the original subject, carried by real authors (John Boorman, Wiliam Peter Blatty and Paul Schrader). But apart from this set of aces (we do not include the prequel returned by Renny Harlin, out of Christian charity), the fabulous The Strangers of Na Hong-jin, and perhaps The Exorcism of Emily Rose by Scott Derrickson, everyone, as soon as they brush up against possession, replays Friedkin’s seminal trip. Everyone, even David Gordon Green with The Exorcist: Devotion.
“No fan service!” promised the director at the microphone of Première, whose film nevertheless religiously follows the structure of Friedkin’s film. A prologue with the scent of voodoo in an “exotic” country, a first big part in the form of a family drama, then a final dose of climax (guess what happens there). It’s predictable, and not very exciting. No gore effects, no scares, no horror… The most convincing is, by far, this first part where two young girls disappear in the woods. The mystery thickens, the atmosphere is heavy, heavy, and it is carried by a great actor: Leslie Odom Jr., already brilliant in The Many Saints of Newark and impeccable as a single dad, even if he doesn’t have much to play. No fan service, it’s quick to say: if throwing the famous Tubular Bells in the background music when the hero goes to look for Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, Regan’s mother at Friedkin) is not fan service, so what is it ? The aftermath of The Exorcist dialogued in a much more fascinating way with the original mythology, either by diverting it (Boorman, Blatty) or by reinvesting it (Schrader). Neither diversion nor reinvestment are at work here, only a sequel in the form of a remake which poses as nothing more than a commercial resurrection in the era of franchising.
Besides these purely technical defects, let’s say, Green does not take advantage of them to intelligently connect Devotion with contemporary America, that of Trump and QAnon. The film barely delivers a sketch of a discourse on living together. Here, it’s the exorcism-ensemble which is more of a folk joke than the autopsy of a country more delirious than ever. Maybe it was easier with Halloween, after all. It was enough to release Michael Myers into the wild and observe the massacre to make a brutal polaroid of the security USA of the 2020s – even if it only worked for the duration of one film, we were very satisfied with To see the boogeyman slice into the bacon of deep America. The Myers myth was still alive. There, demonic possession simply becomes the incarnation of an absurd dilemma which allows for a final micro-twist that is not very fun – and which perhaps carries a very ambivalent question about abortion, in addition. Without spoiling, let’s say that at one point in The Exorcist: Devotion of the guilt of abortion, without the film making it a real subject of terror, or even of cinema. In 1973, Friedkin recounted the terrifying ordeal of a girl martyred by two priests in a room, outside of laws and science. In 2023, the ban on abortion is gradually spreading in the USA – a contagion much more frightening than The Exorcist: Devotionor any little girl possessed by a demon.
The Exorcist: Devotion by David Gordon Green, with Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Ellen Burstyn… Released October 11.