The Last Exorcism
Reviewed in September 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Daniel Stamm. Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Louis Herthum, Iris Bahr, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley, Becky Fly, John Wright, Jr., Shanna Forrestall, Justin Shafer, Denise Lee, Logan Craig Reid. Screenplay: Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland.
Twitter Capsule: Had me well in its grip, impressive in spots, though it's quite cynical and plays ever looser with story logic
(Spoilerish possibilities throughout)

Photo © 2010 Lionsgate/Strike Entertainment
The Last Exorcism basically follows a three-part structure, of which the middle, scariest, and best is happily the longest. Less happily, the comparatively brief early and late segments start eating away at the integrity of the movie within an hour or so after it's over—which is to say, once you've finally shed the heebie-jeebies so effectively spurred by the film. Or, at least, that's how long it took me. My two viewing companions and I were still debating the film in our seats when a dull, rumbling sound suddenly filled the theater. I was about a half-second from literally shrieking at the invading demon before realizing it was just an out-of-sight custodian wheeling in an old plastic trashcan. So, I'd be a hypocrite to deny the power of the film's images, even as I confess that demonic-possession scenarios tend to have me at Pazuzu. Or at Abalam, as the oft-invoked demon of The Last Exorcism is named. That we were still sitting in our seats discussing The Last Exorcism and weren't already tramping through the fallen Raisinets to find the exit is also a good sign, and a fact worth defending against the doubts and discontents that have been provoked by further reflection on the film's logic, or its willful trampling of the same. One of the most dangerous ideas in film culture is that films that prompt a motor-sensory reaction (excitement, fear, pleasure) are automatically "good" films. At the same time, any film that forges as unruly a connection with its audience as this one does deserves some applause, especially when the film belongs to a genre where all too many of its peers come across as rote or as thoughtlessly, remorselessly heartless.

So it's one thing to admit, on reflection if not in the moment, that the handheld, faux-documentary conceits of The Last Exorcism are frequently violated by the editing, are as bedeviled as they are in most films of this type by the dramaturgical quagmire of how or why the camera-operator keeps filming, and by the logical impossibility that this footage would have been recovered at all, much less in the composited form we observe, given the ending of the movie. I wish this found-footage gimmick weren't starting to seem pro forma, even when the filmmakers flagrantly disobey it or even more flagrantly lose interest altogether (see: District 9). On the other hand, I found The Last Exorcism's execution of montage and handheld movement to be engaging enough, as is the thickening atmosphere of tension, dread, and mutual prejudice among the characters, that the racking focus, the low lighting, the slow creeps around corners, and the whipping pans deserve some plaudits for the responses they solicit, regardless of their overfamiliarity or the structural disarray they sometimes induce into the movie. The aesthetic generates persuasive effects, even if it falls short of internal consistency, much less of innovation. And some of the most astounding feats in the movie, namely Ashley Bell's triple-jointed physical rendering of a diabolically occupied body, actually gain traction from the way this evidently DIY aesthetic rules out the possibility of almost any effects-team interference.

Bell is skilled as more than a limber contortionist. Though not a dramatic powerhouse or as specific an articulator of character as Sandra Hüller was in the underseen German possession-thriller Requiem, Bell does an apt, affecting job of seeming panicked and scared by things that rise up from her body, but also by the approach of almost anyone or anything from outside her body, even when the ministrations are friendly. Her darting eyes, her tearful begging for relief during the exorcism scenes, her daughterly eagerness to please, and her incipient attraction to Patrick Fabian's handsome but disingenuous cleric make her pitiable to the audience. Even more improbably, Bell's signaling of these qualities give Nell texture and human density: her situation is monstrous, but she isn't, and she trumps Emily Rose for being more than a blank slate across which a furious mystery shall be written. I liked that Bell doesn't flinch at confessing that it must be she who is slaughtering her father's livestock at night, emphasizing a candid desire to be honest, to be cured, over the expected cascade of nervous tics and abashed denials. I was impressed, too, at how the actress secures our sympathy so early and confidently that we don't lose that link to her character even after she's become a source of mayhem and mortal danger, gazing so steadfastly and smiling so quickly, faintly, and maliciously into the camera that—I'm embarrassed to admit—I was all for setting poor Nell Sweetzer on fire.

Why her father was offering to blow Nell away with his shotgun was less clear to me, given that he doesn't seem ready to renounce hope of her being cured. It might have made more sense for him to want to shoot the feckless exorcist, or the exorcist's personal cameraman and sound recordist. This is one way of getting at the dilemma of how The Last Exorcism has a way of dredging up prejudices and superstitions of many varieties, secular and religious, urban and rural, masculine and feminine, "red" and "blue," but it bats about 60/40 in terms of when this dredging seems artfully to complicate the movie and when it becomes a free-for-all of cynical, incoherent reductionism. Louis Herthum, who plays Nell's father, looks like he's trying to stress paternal devotion in his performance, even paternal over-devotion, despite the onscreen and offscreen filmmakers' temptations to paint him increasingly as a gun-toting, sex-phobic nut, an apparition of violence just waiting to erupt. I thought it was bolder when (really spoilery) the prospect of Nell's pregnancy leads some of the out-of-town characters to assume right away that Nell is a victim of father-daughter incest, such that their own knee-jerk reflexes are called into question as fully as the backwater believers' impulses are. Everyone's got egg on their faces once Nell reveals herself as (imagine!) a sexually curious teenager, despite outward appearances and understandably secretive impulses on this front. For a 10- or 15-minute spell of The Last Exorcism, director Daniel Stamm manages, without just coarsening everyone into one kind or another of frothy-mouthed ideologue, to elaborate a scenario in which no one is prepared to recognize much less to protect this flailing teenager. Her father can't decide if he's her consoler, jailer, or apocalyptic annihilator, and the film crew waffle amongst believing the best and then the worst about Nell, though generally thinking the best of themselves, and not before they've copped the footage on which, presumably, they hope to earn some cash.

All of which is to say that The Last Exorcism ignites more dramatic ironies than I had expected. It boldly leaves the audience without anyone to root for unreservedly, in a way that is adjacent to but impressively separate from the question of whether Nell is or isn't "possessed," and by what. After a frankly tawdry first act, which extends all the way to a close-up of a magnetic Jesus Fish to make sure we know what a lip-licking huckster our protagonist really is, it's a welcome, spooky surprise to see the movie pop open its Pandora's Box of so many different forms of bad faith. I'd say it's around the time that the onscreen filmmakers receive a surprise visitor in their roadside motel that The Last Exorcism really locks into a heady groove. I was hoping it might occur to Stamm or the screenwriters to detach the agenda of the filmmakers more fully from that of the corrupt, complacent Reverend Cotton Marcus, especially once the Beelzebub has really hit the fan, but then they one-upped me by (briefly) giving the camera an altogether darker agent and agenda, detached from all three of them. If you want to wander into The Last Exorcism pondering the problems of why we isolate children as a way of "teaching" or "saving" them, or contemplating when a religious figure is or isn't doing his duty by turning responsibility back onto a family, or the different kind of crisis that a girl's puberty represents to almost everyone around her (including herself), or the ways smug documentarians and mistrustful subjects betray themselves and each other, or just meditating on how to revive an overused generic template and still coax reliable scares from a deranged woodwind, a frozen silhouette in a hallway, and a bleeding cut across a mouth, you are bound to be rewarded with grist for your particular mill. And you'll have a good, heart-in-mouth time while you subject yourself to the movie's bracing middle stretch.

Unfortunately, with any of those investments, you're likely to feel bamboozled by the ending, which (most spoiling of all!) probably should have arrived after the filmmakers confront an unexpected surprise in a small-town deli, but neither they nor their creators know quite when to stop. We re-enter a conceptual hurricane, but rather than complementing the competing points of view in the earlier scenes, the finale just feels desultory and shameless. I'll grant The Last Exorcism a courage of nasty conviction in its last 60 seconds, but the narrative disarray is truly corrosive. Rather than a beguiling knot that refuses any untying, the filmmakers appear to have proffered us all along a clutch of ill-woven threads. Alternating premises slip and strut around each other, of parentally-induced psychosomatism, genuine diabolical possession, targeting of an innocent by bloodthirsty believers in diabolism, the complicity of the girl, the complicity of the father, the guiltlessness of one or both, and the mendacity of an entire community. The most coherent explanation is that everything in The Last Exorcism is at one level or another a red herring for the fact that the Devil maintains a real presence in our world (otherwise, what is coming out of Nell's body, and why is it shrieking, and who was talking in that locked room, and how did she scale that seven-foot armoire?). The hormonal panics of a teenaged girl and the sharkish cynicism of a sham preacher and the good or ill intentions of a parent who has yanked two children out of the world therefore don't amount to a hill of beans, though that's an awful lot of interesting rug to pull out from beneath us. That's the only reading that makes the movie make sense, but it doesn't jell enough with how the movie feels, especially when it's courting nuance, poignancy, and ambiguity, rather than throwing an arsonist's cocktail at its own logical structure. And it creates the problem, too, that the upshot of the movie is opportunistically pro-devil while being rather virulently anti-God, picking off every vestige in the movie of a benign religious presence, much less an inspiring one.

24 hours later, you start to feel like The Last Exorcism was a rush job built on promising, rudimentary impulses, bluntly unfeeling toward its characters instead of just productively skeptical of their various fundamentalisms, and that Stamm & Co. somehow lucked into the impression, for a while, that they were smartly in charge of what they were doing. That's the creeping sense I have had to fight back since seeing the movie yesterday. I'd prefer, though, and not without copious evidence, to feel like The Last Exorcism really is a wily and tensely realized provocation that has the bad but not unusual luck to end maladroitly. Why relinquish the power and the canniness of a whole lot of good scenes, even if they are disappointingly eviscerated by the entropic dénouement? A filmmaker I admire once told me that he used to come down very hard on films that ended poorly, until he decided that good films are often good puzzles, and the greater a puzzle, the more difficult it is to extract oneself. This wasn't his way of valorizing inept or opportunistic conclusions but of deciding that strong films that also end well are all the more impressive, while arresting conundrums that can't quite deduce an exit strategy through all the smoke of their various fires ought, maybe, to be forgiven.

I guess it all does come down to what you elect to believe. Either way, I was, for several long minutes, involuntarily stretching my arm toward the screen, splaying my hand palm-outward as though to push back at the images and sounds. They were really getting to me, and threatening to get worse. The movie, then, has a sort of pentecostal gift: even if you're resisting agnostically from your perch in the pew, even if you wind up worrying it's all a load of profiteering hokum, and unmistakably concocted by people who hail from nowhere near the geographic or the psychological setting of the film, it compels a strong reaction in the moment. The Last Exorcism stirs up your mind, and draws your body into the fervor. That's worth at least a qualified Amen. Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
Exorcism legimitately prompts a few trains of thought and admits some welcome thematic density for a good while, well beyond its shoe-horned gestures in dialogue to the recession and the health-care debates; before regional and anti-religious prejudice start to interfere, it does some good work linking a young girl's suffering with her nascent sexuality and with pious, overprotective parenting. Even the tension between what seems risky and what seems ungenerous in the movie feels productive, and if the genre appeals to you, it's absolutely worth the ticket price. Still, given how badly the logic, structure, and tone of the movie fall apart in retrospect, I am leery of over-stating its value, originality, or sense of genuine risk. "B" and "3" both seem a little high, but "B–" and "2" seem low. I suspect if you buy a ticket at the multiplex tomorrow, you might think I oversold it, but if you happen upon The Last Exorcism on cable a year from now, not knowing anything about it, your expectations will be roundly surpassed.

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