‘The Exorcism’ Review: Russell Crowe Plays a Fallen Movie Star Playing a Priest in an Exorcist Movie. Is This the Sign of a Career Gone to Hell?

I used to simply think there were a lot of exorcist movies. There are, but that doesn’t quite say it. There are so many exorcist movies that starting long ago they began to add up to something larger than the sum of their writhing, low-devil-voice-talking, mottled-gray-skin-with-carved-crucifix parts. When “The Exorcist” came out 50 years ago, it fed into the rise of the new fundamentalist culture. (I get it: “The Exorcist” was Catholic, fundamentalist Christians are not. But I stand by the point.) Because the whole thing about “The Exorcist” is that it felt like it was bigger than a movie. It was making an announcement: The devil is here — and if that is so, maybe it means God is here too.

That’s why exorcist movies never went away. They feed our primal ecclesiastical horror nostalgia by feeding something else: our desire to glimpse the devil in the flesh (and maybe God as a bonus). It helped, in a strange way, that the vast majority of exorcist films are B-movie trash. That makes them feel a bit off the radar and “real,” like “The Blair Witch Project.” And as the recent box-office flameout of David Gordon Green’s big-budget reboot, “The Exorcist: Believer,” demonstrated, it’s no longer enough to trot out the old tropes and clichés. When the devil turns into a rerun, that robs him of his power faster than dunking him in a barrel of holy water.

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For a while, “The Exorcism” seems hip to all this. It’s a movie about the making of an exorcist movie, and that means that all the things you’d expect to see in an exorcist movie — the anguished priest, the torsos bending and cracking, the exploding blasphemy of it all — is something the film has already put in quotation marks. “The Exorcism” opens with a big scare sequence that turns out to be taking place on what looks like a giant dollhouse: the set for the three-story home the film is going to be shot on. A possibility is raised: Will this be a tricky Pirandellian horror movie that overlaps art and life and shows us that the devil is in the details? We at least hope it’s got a crafty way to spook us.

The movie possesses the seeming benefit of starring Russell Crowe. He plays Anthony Miller, a once-hot movie star whose fall from grace was driven by his personal demons. He’s an alcoholic and drug addict who basically abandoned his wife and daughter during the time that his wife was dying of cancer. He was too selfish, and became too unstable for the industry to trust. He got crucified in the media, and now, in recovery, he’s paying the price: popular oblivion. The exorcist film he’s starring in is his chance for a comeback.

While we’re on the subject of art-and-life parallels, this is the second exorcist film that Russell Crowe has made in a little over a year (the first, “The Pope’s Exorcist,” was released in April 2023), and that might well be the sign of a once-hot movie star’s fall from grace. But Crowe remains too good an actor to phone in what he’s doing, and his performance as Tony has an undercurrent of shaggy despair unusual for the genre.

Early on, Tony’s 16-year-old daughter, Lee (Ryan Simpkins), returns to his funky New York loft apartment after she gets kicked out of Catholic boarding school. For a while, we’re invested in whether Tony can mend fences with her, and whether he can turn his broken life around by portraying the priest in a movie whose director, played with amusing Machiavellian ruthlessness by Adam Goldberg, will do whatever it takes to wring a good performance out of his leading man, even it means abusing the hell out of him. (In this case that’s no metaphor.) “You still devout?” asks Goldberg’s Peter, saying it like it’s a dirty word. Tony is a former altar boy, so I guess that’s supposed to hit him hard.

On set, Lee bonds with Tony’s pop-musician costar, Blake (Chloe Bailey), the lead singer of Vampire Sorority. And Tony is coached by an on-set priest, Father Conor, a kind of intimacy-with-the-almighty coordinator played with amiable cynicism by David Hyde Pierce. There are omens, like Tony’s bloody nose on the first day of shooting. The bottom line is that Tony is not giving a good performance, and what’s standing in his way is his guilt for his sins, as well as the “mysterious” trauma that brought on his bad behavior. This is a movie that plays connect-the-dots with exorcist/Catholic/addict themes.

Tony starts slugging whiskey again, which on the movie’s terms is a sign that the devil has appeared. The trouble is that any good exorcist movie requires a confrontation with the devil. Crowe is playing an actor playing an exorcist, and the way “The Exorcism” is structured what he needs to be is the therapeutic Father Merrin of his own soul. But the darker the movie gets, the less there is at stake, and the more that Crowe seems to be going through the motions of trying to save not his soul but his career. The power of residuals compels you.

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