Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Exorcism of Emily Rose) has a pretty well-developed eye and an instinct for plotting and atmosphere that can take a base-level horror movie and push it upward into legit film territory. In Sinister, he played with the audience and strung them along so that, once you reach the final act, it isn’t just the twist of the thing that gets you, it’s the way in which you were led into it unassuming and are left without the escape of disinterest or boredom once you get there. In Exorcism of Emily Rose, the victim at the center of the thing feels a pain that is not screamed through a megaphone all at once as much as it is worn in like a baseball glove over time. Both these films, whether you have issues with scripting or not, have a textural and tonal feel that fills up the story in a measured way.
So it is not surprising, then, that Deliver Us From Evil follows that same type of methodology to forcibly but gently nudge the audience through the traps and pitfalls of the film versus abrupt shoves from the get-go. This is both great and also not so great, depending on your patience level. Because on the one hand, you get to appreciate the craft and assembly of a film that is all about texture and spacing and sound design and fear and not about cheap camera swings and sound spikes as its only method of scaring the viewer. On the other hand, there is bulky-ness to the middle stretch of the film that feels more like a crime drama than a thriller and more like an infomercial for religion than a damning of the inconsistent and unreliable influence of religious practice on so-called possessions.
The story initially shows us a trio of soldiers in combat in Iraq stumbling on a cave with some unpleasant adornments on the walls and some freaky electro-magnetic phenomena happening which all results in a big, unsettling question mark as to the soldier’s fates. Once we’ve got that setup, we fast forward to New York and hone in on two Bronx-based detectives, Sarchie (Eric Bana) and Butler (Joel McHale), who are starting to see a pattern with an increasing frequency of cases involving some screwy behavior, claims of all manner of evil stuff happening and must try to figure out how it fits together.
We’re introduced to Mendoza (the solid Édgar Ramírez), a loose-around-the-edges priest who gets involved in the cases by virtue of his connection to a crazed woman apprehended at the zoo early on in the film after an incident involving her flinging her baby into the lion enclosure. We also have Sarchie’s wife Jen (Olivia Munn) who adds a little color to Sarchie’s life and back story by putting a human face on the distance with family created by the day-to-day horror a police detective must deal with – or deal badly with, depending on your point of view. This is balanced out by the relationship the two detectives have with each other which was funny (I mean, c’mon, you cast Joel McHale, you have to give him a few funny things to do) but not a situation where you are overwhelmed with too much jokey crap unbefitting of a serious crime-horror film. So that balance between Sarchie’s home and work life works well mainly because they don’t overdo it too much.
Because when it comes down to it, this film is very serious. Serious tone, serious story, serious threat, serious everything. It is not played big and over-the-top and it certainly isn’t played for shock and terrify. The slow, measured quality of the story lends itself to deep thinking about the subject matter and affords time to work it through little by little. While I admire this dedication to not running like a rabbit to tell a story like this, I also would have prefered a lot more trimming on the expositive aspects of the film and more emphasis on atmospheric dread and tension scares. There are a few jump ones and, well, they aren’t too great – save for an actual, honest-to-God cat-scare which made me laugh.
Since God came up, it is important to mention that because the film is a ‘based on true accounts’ type of thing – the religious angle is played to a much higher pitch than other recent exorcism films have dared to do. Because when it comes down to it, the tension and threat of the thing must appeal to those that the ‘reality’ of the religious connotations really speak to and also to those who think it is a bunch of nonsense. I don’t know that that balance is struck in a wholly satisfying way – but, it doesn’t talk down to either faction either.
So all in all, you have a lovely-to-look-at film that is well thought out and pretty hairy at points but which suffers from a bit of overstuffing around the midsection. It achieves much of its success by being a much-better-than-average crafted film than what you’d expect for this type of subject matter. It is, though, hampered by expositive-heavy and flashlight-in-the-darkness heavy sequences that wear against the pace to enough of a degree that some might grow weary before the tense final act finally brings it all home.