by Philip Price
The exorcism/possession movie should be retired for the moment and given some time to breathe. The idea of scaring people through a visual medium while relying on the inherent mysterious and otherworldly aspects of religion has officially become tired. Of course, if Hollywood were to stop cranking out horror movies centered around exorcisms it would pretty much be akin to them doing away with action movies based around super heroes. It's not going to happen so at the very least we should be able to hope for a film that is competently put together (which seems to be asking for a lot in these days of found footage) while also bringing something new to the table. “Deliver Us From Evil” has always had the potential to bring a fresh perspective on things to this tired genre given several factors including its director, Scott Derrickson. Derrickson has slowly been making a voice for himself over the past decade now as this marks his third trek into the realm of horror after 2005's “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and 2012's “Sinister.” Yes, even he has already crafted an exorcism film which proves to be somewhat of a template for his latest that again melds the idea of a scary movie with another genre of film entirely. In ‘Emily Rose’ it was that of a courtroom drama, Derrickson pulling back the small bubble of a world that these supernatural events seem to happen in on film with no repercussions on a larger society and showing us what would happen if they did. It is what happens when one takes their subject matter seriously and as both the director and co-screenwriter Derrickson is able to give his stories the utmost respect in terms of credibility and that type of approach can only work for a director as it has done again here in “Deliver Us From Evil.” All of that said, this latest addition (which feels like the end of a horror trilogy before Derrickson moves on to Marvel) is a lesser work than ‘Emily Rose’ or “Sinister” in that it doesn't have the same edge or thrill to its pacing or proceedings. Where ‘Emily Rose’ felt urgent and truly disturbing “Sinister” was a meticulous slow burn that, admittedly, has a clunky third act. “Deliver Us From Evil” has all the elements to keep us interested and intrigued from the get-go, but never does it feel as compelling as it should until the final scenes.
As is typically noted “Deliver Us From Evil” is also based, or should I say inspired, by something true which this time is perpetrated as being the case files of one Ralph Sarchie. Sarchie (played by Eric Bana in the film) was a New York police officer who, by the end of his time with the department, became a decorated sergeant and went on to become a demonologist. This has all been widely presented to the masses in hopes of drawing on the curiosity of those who find the potential of such things we typically relegate to fiction as something of a truth. Obviously, some liberties have been taken and I wouldn't count out entire characters being imagined with Sgt. Sarchie's case files as translated by Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman. We meet Sarchie as he roams the Bronx at night with partner Butler (Joel McHale) taking cases that set off his "radar" or kind of intuition that tells him certain calls will be filled with action or at least more layered things to look through than your standard robberies. Butler is an adrenaline junkie and Sarchie feeds him while playing up his own persona after becoming semi-famous in the NYPD for taking down a highly sought-after child molester a few years prior. Sarchie also happens to have been a boy raised in the Catholic church, but has since lost touch with his faith or "outgrown all of that stuff" as he so delicately puts it. This plays into the development of the character of course, but is really highlighted by the increasing need for involvement by Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), a Jesuit priest. Father Mendoza isn't your typical priest as he smokes cigarettes one after another and will, with pleasure, explain to you the difference between NA and AA (the one of which he prefers being the one that kills him slowly). It is when a few cases Sarchie is working on involving a mother tossing her child into a ravine at the Bronx Zoo and a man who voluntarily drinks paint thinner to kill himself cross paths and contain more of a spiritual element than Sarchie, or anyone for that matter, might like to acknowledge that he aligns himself with Mendoza. The relationship between the two is built naturally with an understanding between them giving their serious acts against possession during the climax of the film a wider sense of affirmation.
The film really rests on the shoulders of Bana and Ramirez and this ever-evolving dynamic between their characters that culminates if not in a surprising way, is at least more satisfying than you might expect given the genre of the film. Horror is such a tough beast to tackle given everything that has come before and the tricks of the trade that are no longer shocking and so at this point if you're going to make a scary movie you have to anchor it by the characters you have in play. Derrickson realizes that and that is why he casts actors like Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Ethan Hawke and Eric Bana rather than up and coming Abercrombie and Fitch models looking for bigger paychecks. He understands the power of character plus concept and that is where he finds a point of entry into the story and just continues to dig further. We meet Bana's Sarchie as he is grasping onto a dead infant he and Butler have found at the bottom of a dumpster while the film is book-ended by a scene that both mirrors and surpasses this moment in showing the evolution of Sarchie and not necessarily how he learns from his experiences (his life in the NYPD is consistently disturbing, there is only so much he can gain from seeing the gruesome), but it is in what he takes away from these instances and how he applies them to his life and grows from them that the film takes into heavy account. Bana makes it clear for the first half of the film that Sarchie is not dealing with his work-life balance in the most proactive of ways, but is instead zoning out from his family so as to try and restrict the darkness of his nights from seeping into their home. Of course, this results in the mandatory complaint of his wife, Jen (Olivia Munn), that even when he is home that he isn't really there. This kind of distance re-enforces the overall theme of a lack of faith or that something extra that we all need in life to comfort us and reassure us that we're not in this alone or making it through our day-to-day for nothing. As much as Sarchie denounces the silliness of Bible stories, he misses the novelty it brought to his childhood. It is this kind of underlying presence of character motivation and acting depth that separate Derrickson's horror flicks from the pack.
One might wonder if the execution of Bana's character development over the course of the film is so well done then why does the film as a whole feel like a lesser effort than the director’s earlier ones? Well, the answer to that is in the form of how the film trudges through the first hour and a half as opposed to the intentional pacing of “Sinister” and the urgency with which ‘Emily Rose’ builds to the culmination of its two narratives. In “Deliver Us From Evil” Derrickson combines the beats of a police procedural with the investigation into plots that we've seen countless times before. That the meat of the film comes from the confrontation and further analysis of one another through Sarchie and Mendoza's conversations is disappointing because their relationship is put on simmer and only in the last half of the film and into the climax do we get the fruits of these labors. Leading to the partnership of Sarchie and Mendoza we are communicated the details of our antagonist Santino (Sean Harris) and the details with which he has come to allow this portal to another world that have permitted demons into ours to occur. It is in this plotting that the film lacks the narrative drive to justify what it is building to, but that seems only because I hold Derrickson to a higher standard than other horror directors. That said, the build-up is shaped by a strong performance from Bana who conveys his arc with his personal issues and reservations about leaping into the realm of spiritually-based theories with understandable caution. I rather enjoyed the film to the point that films like this don't come along too often anymore, but have reservations about my excitement over it because my wife is a stickler for horror movies and she found this to be nothing more than "another movie". Still, you could do much, much worse in looking for a scary movie to watch than “Deliver Us From Evil” even if I would still recommend Derrickson's previous efforts before this one. “Deliver Us From Evil” is that competent horror film that brings a fresh perspective to the genre in the form of the cop drama; it pairs the drama of these investigations and the bottom of society with the thrills of the supernatural elements and manages an interesting story if not withholding its more interesting insights until just before the credits roll instead of spreading them out evenly.