Great performances at heart of chilling backwoods thriller
The topic for this month’s sermon-at-the-movies is “Eat, Pray/Prey, Love (Kill).” Not to load too much on the shoulders of Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Gilbert, but their little therapeutic romance and its title reverberate rather intriguingly within an unintentional cycle of recent releases that includes Winter’s Bone, Get Low and The Last Exorcism.
The latter is the subject immediately at hand, and it makes several peculiarly resonant contributions to the quasi-metaphysical rumblings—personal epiphanies, final reckonings, confessions and settling of moral accounts—that are variously in play with all four of these late-summer releases.
Directed by Aaron Schneider, The Last Exorcism takes the form of a fictional documentary about a disillusioned evangelist, The Rev. Cotton Marcus (nicely played by Patrick Fabian) who has decided to end his own fraudulent (and lucrative) career as an exorcist by having a film crew follow him through the tricks and trepidations of one last encounter with a rural family that has requested his services.
The evangelist’s cinéma vérité confessions/exposé goes pretty much as planned, but—of course—only up to a point. The Sweetzer family—widowed farmer Louis (Louis Herthum) and two rather disturbed teenage children, Nell and Caleb—buy into The Rev. Marcus’ ministrations to one extent or another, but each of them has a more tangled and dangerous story than is at first evident.
Soon enough, the evangelist/muckraker and his film crew get much more—and worse—than they, however benightedly, bargained for. And the intended exposé gets knocked for a mind-boggling loop—with results that are chilling at the very least and perhaps genuinely haunting as well.
The Last Exorcism is not a sequel to The Exorcist—not literally, at least—and it is also not the last of anything, except as it pertains to Cotton Marcus. But it is an uncommonly smart and restrained horror film, done with a minimum of gruesome excess and a surprising amount of imaginative guile.
Fabian brings nicely understated conviction to the Cotton Marcus role—both the charismatic authority and the odd mixture of pride and naïveté in that curiously paradoxical character. Caleb Landry Jones is eerily credible as a devilish teenaged redneck. And Ashley Bell is simply astonishing as Nell, who is deranged or abused or possessed, or all three—an otherworldly creature from the nearby outback.
The overall story is not quite as good as these best moments and the performances that go with them. The single-camera, pseudo-documentary ploy begins to break down even before the final revelations of the rather forced climax come into view. But even then, it’s good for one last drop-dead character twist and shock effect.
As for the “Eat, Pray/Prey …” connections, let me suggest the following—Cotton is the Julia/Gilbert character here, Nell is the flip side of Winter Bones’ Ree, Louis Sweetzer is a haunted counterpart to Felix (Robert Duvall) in Get Low and the Richard Jenkins character in Eat Pray Love, and Caleb has brethren creeping about in various guises in all the others.