2 out of 4 stars
It’s not easy making an exorcism movie these days. The usual tropes have already been tackled for the most part, leaving little room for originality. Desperate for a fresh take, one will come into Deliver Us From Evil hoping writer/director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister) can rise to the occasion. And honestly, it’s a mixed bag. The pitfalls are numerous and the execution is clumsy, but a unique twist and some high tension scares will pique interest and do combat the lackluster script and characters with moderate success.
Inspired by actual events (let’s just go with that), the film follows Bronx cop Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) as he attempts to uncover secrets behind odd events occurring around 2013 New York. He and his partner Butler (Joel McHale) have found a pattern of strange behavior revolving around a group of friends who were Marines serving together in Iraq and all signs point towards demonic possession, much to the agnostic Sarchie’s chagrin.
One of the Marines, Santino (Sean Harris), seems to be at the center of the drama, and Sarchie finds that he must utilize the skills and knowledge of a Jesuit priest, Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who is connected to the families, if he wants to solve the mystery. But he must also take caution, as the supposed demonic forces seem to be targeting him in particular as well as his wife (Olivia Munn) and daughter (Lulu Wilson).
Derrickson knows his tension and terror and has proven this many times before. Here however he attempts to sneak in a dose of cop action. The combination works at times and clearly could not have been easy to handle. Unfortunately the director just does not have a grasp on his characters and this makes it hard to connect to them. Most everyone is a cop movie type (the strong hero, the clucky sidekick, the wistful wife, etc.) and most of the stereotypes attached to each are blown out of proportion. The level of New Yorker here has hit “11”, with almost every cop character wearing some form of baseball paraphernalia (one is practically wearing an entire Yankees jersey). The characters never can be taken seriously thanks to their jokey biological tropes.
Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman (Devil’s Knot) had their work cut out for them with source material such as this. Clearly, the non-fiction nature of Sarchie’s book Beware the Night made things difficult, as it made the film structure episodic. This framework makes rising action nearly impossible and subsequently the entire endeavor all happens at one level, right up until an admittedly climactic final scene. And because the style has been combined with the action genre, the whole script reads like it was originally intended for a video game. As a result, the audience has become distanced from the action on screen. The wooden dialogue and poorly shoehorned character development do not help and make every line that much more obviously problematic.
Fortunately the scares overcome the problems. The relentlessly eerie sound design keeps the tension aloft throughout using strong, surreal mixes. And the final exorcism scene will keep you on edge for every single minute of its somewhere-around-15-minute run time. Yes, the script spends way too much time explaining what it is about to do before doing it, but the film’s incredible lighting and strong visual elements make the ordeal worthwhile.
Bana’s subtle acting style covers for an Achilles Heel with which he struggles: reaction. You can see his efforts to maintain balance and tone, but this focus tends to lead him into acting with himself and not the actor across from him, destroying potential chemistry. I love Joel McHale and I must admit I am confused as to why the ads for this film did not plug him more to pull in a wider audience. All of that being said, the talented comedian just is not an action star. He pulls off his comic relief scenes well, but the rest of the film seems to be an odd fit for him. And Edgar Ramirez seems miscast, period. The eclectic take on the exorcist would have been better suited to someone with a little less polish. Sean Harris seems right at home as the disturbed soldier, however. He fearlessly tackles the role with expert skill and provides some of the film’s more thrilling moments.
A few performances and strong scares do make for a fairly powerful horror movie in the end. However even the addition of action as a genre cannot hide the many problems behind this annoyingly simplified script. Derrickson’s film is not bad by any means, it just happens to depend far too much on its mashup trick to spend the time to iron out any details of character, whether due to direction or acting. The hunt for the next great exorcism movie continues, I suppose.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.