When the late, great director William Friedkin unleashed the pinnacle of horror that is The Exorcist upon the world in 1973, it was as if he had tapped into something almost demonic himself. Telling the story of the young Regan (Linda Blair) who becomes possessed and the desperate efforts by her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) to save her, it was an experience that was as patient as it was petrifying. 50 years later, it still looks absolutely magnificent, wrapping you up in its world before crushing the air from your lungs in one of the most iconic conclusions in cinema. It remains one of the all-time great works of horror ever made.

There have been subsequent attempts to recapture the magic, but none have come even close. To try to rise to the emotional heights Friedkin brought to life as he peered into darkness feels like a fool’s errand as any work will always be living in the shadow of his vision. Perhaps in an attempt to get around this, David Gordon Green tries to build upon the events of the original film by making The Exorcist: Believer into a direct sequel of sorts. Though not without some potentially interesting additions, this latest attempt stumbles.

The story centers on Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) who is trying his best to raise his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) on his own after tragedy struck 13 years prior and left him a widower. In the present day, he has managed to establish a tentative tranquility. Though Angela often wonders about what happened to her mother, Victor seems focused on trying to put this behind him out of guilt over a choice he made surrounding her death. After dropping his daughter off at school with the agreement that she will be home for dinner, the patriarch goes about his day working as a photographer. When evening rolls around, Angela is nowhere to be found. Stricken with fear, Victor soon finds out that she and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) wandered off into the woods. When they return three days later, convinced it has only been a couple of hours since their disappearance, attempts are made to determine what happened only to come up with no answers for the parents or their children. As the two young girls begin to show signs of possession, Victor has to reassess his own faith and seek out answers to prevent the person who matters most to him from being lost forever. It’s a shame the story itself feels like it is searching for something more that it never grabs hold of.

There is something almost comical about how The Exorcist: Believer takes the premise of the first movie and attempts to go bigger by making it two girls becoming possessed instead of one. Rather than being something fresh or different, it comes across as a largely empty escalation in search of more profound emotion. On top of that, it isn’t particularly scary, as nothing visually holds the same mesmerizing power as Friedkin’s work, and the whole thing seems increasingly scattered. The premise of two girls even ends up working to the film’s detriment and bifurcates its focus. The central relationship between Angela and Victor is often set aside as the story keeps cutting back to what is going on with Katherine.

There is a reading to be made about the differences between the two families with the way their respective racial and religious backgrounds inform their responses to the crisis. This requires looking rather deeply into a shallow film that gestures at more complicated questions before abandoning them to lean so hard into nostalgia for the original film that it topples over. If The Exorcist: Believer had the confidence to explore this new story, which shows signs of promise in the more measured beginning sequences, perhaps it could have stood on its own. Instead, the film’s insistence on also being a sequel ensures it succeeds at neither.

In particular, the return of Burstyn as Chris proves to be a baffling narrative choice. This isn’t her fault, as she brings as much gravitas as she can to what is a rather thankless part, but the entire story grinds to a halt when Victor travels out to see her in search of answers. It is hard to call this “fan service” based on where Chris is taken; in one of the film’s most explosive yet empty moments, her return almost exists as a way to poke audience members in the eye who have a fondness for the original. The entire thing ends up a disservice both to Burstyn and to this new movie. The return of another familiar face and its supposed emotional payoff towards the end is similarly misguided. Neither one is earned as much as they are tacked on. It is like the film felt as though it had to hurriedly check off certain things before it all came to a close. Whether this will have an impact on the supposedly planned trilogy to come is unclear, but it’s also hard to bring oneself to care about any future ramifications when this first film is more of a chore to enjoy.

The small saving grace of The Exorcist: Believer is its cast. This is especially true with Odom, who gives an understated performance that serves as the glue that prevents everything from entirely coming apart. His strengths are distinctly felt in the film’s extended conclusion. Even when all the swirling chaos that surrounds him proves to be less effective, you never once are not taken in by the intensity of his gaze, believing every moment of who Victor is even if the film doesn’t really seem to believe in letting him be the focus. The same can be said of the always astute Ann Dowd as Victor’s neighbor. Not only has she been great in other works that reflect on faith, like The Leftovers, or far superior modern possession horror like Hereditary, but she similarly brings a lot to this experience through the passion of her line delivery. Tasking her with giving one of the most contrived concluding monologues in recent memory serves as an encapsulation of all the film’s problems.

Even with a talented cast and a potential story that could stand on its own if made the focus, The Exorcist: Believer never has the confidence to let its strongest aspects take center stage. The fact that it tries to walk back the more grim realities in its ending so that it can be cloyingly uplifting is a misunderstanding of the impact that the original left. It instead prioritizes setting up what could be another future sequel to the detriment of the film being watched in the present. For all the promising threads it pulls on surrounding a variety of faith traditions, The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t earn your belief or your fear. Where Friedkin’s classic will endure forever, this superficial sequel remains stuck in the past. It may try to speak all the same verses, but it doesn’t add new life to any of them.

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