Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Daniel Stamm

Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material)

Running Time: 1:27

Release Date: 8/27/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 26, 2010

The minister goes through the motions. He has done this many, many times. He reads the passages. He hardly flinches when the bed begins to shake and the pictures on the wall begin to move. He almost appears to expect the guttural, moaning voice that emanates, seemingly from the beyond, before he commands the owner of that voice to leave this poor girl and take him instead.

He seems to anticipate it, because he does. The minister of The Last Exorcism is a charlatan. He has spent most of life convincing himself that he is helping people exorcise demons, though not of the literal kind. The money isn't bad, either.

After reading in the paper about a young child's death during an exorcism ritual, he has a revelation: This is potentially dangerous, and the good he might do the majority is not worth the offset chance that his actions might damage or lead to the death of another child.

This is where Daniel Stamm's familiar but intelligent, austere, and compelling The Last Exorcism finds Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) at the start of the film. Cotton is not a broken man, faltering or having lost his faith, but a determined one. A two-person film crew, consisting of a sound operator (Iris Bahr) and a cameraman (Zoltan Honti, the film's cinematographer), is following him as he attempts to debunk the practice of exorcisms.

There is a very simple and straightforward reason the film works as well as it does, and it lies in the solid, succinct development of this man, raised from childhood to want to become a man of faith without ever having a personal desire to be one. His father called Cotton in front of the congregation to preach when he was a boy. To the flock, it seemed spontaneous, but in reality, the entire event was carefully planned.

Preaching is, for Cotton, a showman's craft. He'll use card tricks to highlight Jesus' teachings, and the crowd eats it up. He knows this and even bets the documentary crew that he can talk about banana bread and still get an "Amen" from the church. After reciting the recipe for banana bread in the middle of the sermon, the congregation loudly and proudly responds to his call for an "Amen," following it with a "Hallelujah" to boot.

Cotton knows what he is doing and doesn't see anything wrong with it. He has a family for whom to care. His son (Justin Shafer) was born prematurely, and the continuing medical costs that have resulted keep growing. There's money to be had in exorcisms, and he's been doing them almost as long as that first time in front of church full of believers (He has a news clipping about the first one he performed as a kid and, at the time, was shocked to learn it wasn't in all the newspapers across the country). As long as he is helping people and isn't hurting anyone, he and his wife (Shanna Forrestall) are fine with the arrangement. Then he read about the child dying and recalled his own fear about his son.

Screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland have given us a character in Cotton. He's not a type or a collection of memories of other fictional men of the cloth but a specific person in a specific place with specific thoughts, fears, hopes, and plans. This kind of detail is unnecessary for the fundamental genre conventions, and in spending as much time as the film does on it, the story far surpasses those rules and expectations even as it uses them.

The film is set in Louisiana, where so many faith traditions have collided over time that they begin to bleed together (People at one gas station can spout tales of cults and demons with ease, and the UFO landing site is that way). On the outskirts of a town, there is the Sweetzer family. Daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon, her father Louis (Louis Herthum) says. Brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) wants Cotton and the film crew to leave before they arrive at the house, fearing that performing an exorcism on Nell will only solidify his dad's fundamentalism. The Sweetzers are still mourning the death of their matriarch: Nell blushes and glows when Cotton says she looks like her mother, Louis has taken to drinking, and Caleb wants to protect his sister.

The family is also established firmly, making the resulting sequences of possible possession all the more doubtful. We see Cotton perform the ritual, intercut with the ways he creates the effects of a demonic force with fishing wire, a joy buzzer, and speakers connected to a portable music player. Nell can speak Latin, but she certainly didn't learn it from her father, who has to have passages from a guide to recognizing your demons translated by Cotton. She contorts her body in painful ways, draws disturbing pictures, and uses the crew's camera to film them and the killing of the family cat. Cotton wants Nell to receive psychological help to root out her trauma, but Louis is convinced of Cotton's earlier diagnosis.

The scenes of Nell's possession have been done before, but it hardly matters in light of the attention to character in The Last Exorcism. There is an uneasy mood and apprehensive energy—heightened exponentially by our grasp of these people—throughout, leading to a jolt of a finale that eliminates all previous questions only to enter a whole new realm of uncertainty.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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