The Power of Crowe Compels You In The Exorcism

Joshua John Miller's goofy horror-drama finds a fun balance before petering out.

Man in a suit passionately singing into a microphone under blue stage lighting.
Inverse Reviews

Over 50 years since its premiere, William Friedkin's The Exorcist casts a lengthy shadow over American horror. All films about demonic possession seem to speak its twisted language, and its influence becomes even harder to ignore in The Exorcism, a film whose title is just one letter removed. The new Russell Crowe-starring horror film also happens to be about a pseudo-remake of Friedkin's classic, and is even directed by Joshua John Miller, the son of actor Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in the landmark original.

However, Miller — who co-wrote the script with romantic partner M.A. Fortin — isn't eager to shy away from comparisons. In fact, his experiences watching his dad be violently tossed around on set appear to have left an indelible mark, to the point that The Exorcism is entirely about a child witnessing their father lose himself to a similar role.

The father-daughter relationship plays a central part of The Exorcism.


The horror-drama is situated firmly in the supernatural and the self-reflexive, opening with the demonic death of an actor on a constructed sound stage. Not long after, Russell Crowe's washed-up, widowered character actor Anthony Miller — note the last name — is called in to audition as a replacement, and wins the role because of his troubled past.

Adam Goldberg plays Anthony's ruthless unnamed director, who probes at his pain and insecurities to get a better performance out of him, on a film dubbed "The Georgetown Project." It's a working title that alludes to The Exorcist's setting, and heavily implies it to be a remake. It has all the hallmarks of typical exorcism movies, from a scarred child writhing around in her bed (Chloe Bailey), to a handsome priest commanding a demon to take a hike (Sam Worthington). Even outside the context of Miller's connection to the original, the premise feels tongue-in-cheek: you can scarcely make an exorcism movie without feeling like a Friedkin knock-off, so why pretend otherwise?

What makes Anthony's participation especially intriguing is his relationship to Catholic imagery. He was once publicly mentioned as a victim of priesthood abuse, and his alcohol and drug problems seem to have stemmed from childhood incidents. Despite the kind words of the film's Catholicism consultant, Father Conor (David Hyde Pierce), Anthony's suppressed emotions come rushing to the fore when he's hired to embody a priest wrestling with his faith. This is a part of himself Anthony has long buried and left behind, but accessing it comes at a particularly tricky time, since the production coincides with his estranged daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins) returning home after being expelled from college.

Anthony gets Lee a job on set, but as the shoot goes on, she's forced to watch him slowly tumble down an emotional rabbit hole, as he backslides into concerning behavior that rides the line between addiction and something ghostly. It's during these more mysterious scenes — when The Exorcism allows elements of doubt to creep in — that it has the most soul, allowing horror tropes and hallmarks to exacerbate intimate personal demons, rather than standing in as fluid, distant metaphors.

The Exorcism is very clearly inspired by director Joshua John Miller’s own experiences with his father on the set of The Exorcist.


The film makes full use of the language of method acting, not in the reductive "staying in character at all times" sense, but the traditional notion of emotional recall and playing on one's experiences. When Anthony goes to a deep, dark place within his memories — usually depicted as fleeting but powerful flashes — he accesses the raw vulnerability his character needs, but does real spiritual damage to himself as well. This manifests in the form of a subtle darkness that consumes his eyes (another image typical of Hollywood horror), but no one else seems to notice. Either they don't see it — it works perfectly well as a projection of his psyche — or they refuse to recognize the personal hell Anthony is putting himself through.

Images that recur in possession films, and those that were made iconic by The Exorcist, appear in new permutations as embodiments of Anthony's relapse into alcoholism. He loses control of bodily function when he blacks out, and "becomes" a worse, more aggressive, more confrontational person, blurring the line between possession and intoxication. All the while, as the film plays coy about personal-versus-literal demons, Crowe delivers a masterfully committed performance — much of it in close up — during which it's hard not get pulled into his orbit, and connect with him spiritually.

At one point, Goldberg's character pompously refers to The Georgetown Project as a psychological drama wrapped in horror packaging, which seems to poke fun at the self-importance of modern "prestige horror." However, Crowe really is tuned into something wholly dramatic and heart-rending, even when the movie eventually slips too far into traditional horror territory and loses steam. It becomes that which it's satirizing, and it's not a particularly effective version of it either, but there isn't a single moment when Crowe isn't utterly convincing. Notably, The Exorcism is the second recent exorcist movie starring Crowe. The other was the raucously silly The Pope's Exorcist, which it was shot well before in 2019, and while the two have little in common outside of Crowe, what they do share is his magnetic presence (this time, with a flimsy American accent, rather than Italian).

Russell Crowe manages to elevate The Exorcism from being the direct-to-video schlock it seems doomed to be.


Anthony's relationship to his daughter remains central, though it's hard to avoid feeling like some element of its horror-drama might've been left on the table. Lee has a girlfriend and his played by a nonbinary actor, and while the movie's casual queerness is a step in the right direction of the optics of inclusion, it also represents a missed opportunity, when it comes to placing Lee's queerness in direct confrontation with the movie's strongly Catholic symbols and themes. Miller, a gay director, is certainly free to place as much or as little of his experience on screen as he sees fit, but the film only lightly touches on Anthony's feelings towards his daughter being a lesbian. While this happens at a charged moment, it amounts to very little by way of discomfort or dramatic evolution. Something darker and uglier, meanwhile, would've been a perfect fit for the movie's bleak, frigid color palette, which imbues it with a sense of nihilism. It's evocatively shot, but it's rarely provocative, emotionally or thematically, in part because it seems eager to speed along to its conclusion.

This is another major road bump too. Just when it seems like the film is getting too lethargic with its exorcism shtick, it takes what appears to be a major left turn. However, it also very quickly doubles back — a jarring u-turn that feels like the product of reshoots, or distinct lack thereof — because it soon arrives at its climax without any indication of how it actually got there, physically or emotionally.

Watching Crowe ham his way through scenes of guilt and anguish is deliciously enjoyable. He's consistently the best thing about movies that would otherwise be dismissed as direct-to-video shlock, because he's a prestige star no matter what kind of film he's in. However, there's only so much The Exorcism can actually accomplish with its subversions before it embraces the mundane and overly-familiar, rather than transcending it.

The Exorcism opens in theaters June 21.

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