Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Last Exorcism

Suspension of disbelief is such a funny thing. Once you have it, once you make an audience believe that what you’re telling it is real, man you can do anything. ANYTHING. But at the same time its so utterly fragile, and if you lose that suspension of disbelief, if you somehow break that trust once earned? God help you, because your movie is about to fail.

Which is exactly what happens with the The Last Exorcism, a film so effective it became easily my favorite horror film since The Strangers. Until an ending so bad, it breaks the movie. That’s the only way I know how to describe it that the movie is completely broken by it, with a suddenness like someone flipped a switch. Its such a stunning left turn into dreadful, with such jaw dropping thoroughness, that it just has to be seen to be believed.

All along in the theater I was composing my review, a much happier review then the one I’m writing now. I was going to praise the movie for its slow burn of suspense, for its commanding and eerie atmosphere, for the dedicated performances of the leads, for its practical effects and scary sequences, for its structural daring leaving the question of the supernatural open for almost the entire film, for its skeptical, yet respectful treatment of religion. And then the ending comes along and completely negates it.

I’m having trouble even verbalizing what pisses me off so bad. It’s so compulsory, almost like an allergic reaction. One of the phrases that I perhaps over use is the metaphor of film as a tightrope walk. But here it fits, because you see this movie walk this exact tone for ninety minutes, and then watch it swan dive and dash its brains on the on the ground in the last possible second.

But lets take a step back here. Cotton starts off as charismatic fundie preacher, who doesn’t actually believe in God, but is too charming ever to come out and say it. Undergoing a crisis of conscience he decides to allow a camera crew to come with him. True to form, The Last Exorcism does genuinely feel like one of those “quirky individuals” docs like Slasher or Best Worst Movie. It then develops it into a pretty effective satire of religion, with a hefty helping of southern gothic (which made it a very interesting double feature with Winter’s Bone, let me tell you). It grounds itself in the detail of the place, one of my favorite touches is how whenever Cotton introduces himself as being "From Baton Rouge" the person he's talking to reacts in suspicion, as if that teeming metropolis isn't Southern enough. More importantly it grounds the characters so that when things start to turn into a very effective little horror film, we actually care what happens to them. The film manages to keep the demon/psychosis, argument in the air for almost its entire runtime. The movie generates a huge amount of tension, without ever once resorting to one of the standard Exorcist movie tricks (until its second to last, and very effective confrontation about 80 minutes in). Whether its psychosis or Satan a homely, over friendly teenage girl, turns into a blank eyed figure of terror, and things are set up so the situation keeps getting worse.

Then comes the ending, which does not merely lack the courage of its convictions, but lacks the courage to lack the courage of its convictions. Its not that the film is anti climatic, it's just non climatic. Shying away from resolution in a way that’s not ambiguous or clever, but lazy.

I’ll I can say, is that if the ending of House Of The Devil bothered you? I don’t even know how you’d give this shit a pass.


Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

I had the exact same experience with this movie. It was amazing the way they utterly demolished it with that atrocious, out-of-step ending.

Planet of Terror said...

Funny that we posted about this film on the same day :)

This really has caused polar opposite reactions, especially among those in the horror blogosphere. I haven't seen anyone in the middle on this one: you either love it or you hate it.

For me, I think there was a resolution and it was the only one which fit. If the exorcism was a success, it would have just been that 'other' infamous film about a fight with the devil. How could have this gone into any other territory? I'll agree that the ending was a little clunky, momentum slowing even. But I was completely satisfied.

Overall, I saw the film as a commentary on the current state of religion. I wonder why the subject hasn't been brought up more in reviews and articles. Everyone is so hung up on the ending.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Steve: Good to know I'm not the only one.

@ PoT: I hear you, I'm still trying to work my feelings about the ending out.

I guess my problem with the ending is here they walk this tightrope of having the demonic possession vs. mental illness question be open for the entire film. With the Mental Illness winning out, and then when it does switch to full on "Demon Time" the movie, literally wusses out with the camera man running away.

I mean that's just a bad narrative tactic, I'd be pissed about that, even if I didn't think the actual message the movie's ending was sending was muddled.

I actually thought the religious content was handled pretty well up to that point. Cotton was a great character, I love that even though its clear he doesn't believe in God you never actually hear the sentence "I don't believe in God." ever come out of his mouth, he knows he still needs the money from ministry even if he's going to expose Exorcisms. And he can't have his disbelief recorded on film. The Banana Bread moment was great too.

In all honesty though, I'm having trouble putting my finger on exactly WHAT it was that bothered me about the ending so much. It was almost an allegeric reaction, a clear case of the "No sir, I don't like it"s.

The closest I can come is that it's not that it went to far, it just didn't go far enough.

Anonymous said...

The Last Exorcism was such a great movie! Really makes you think, and makes me want to see it again just to put the pieces together!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Anon: Even though I didn't like it, I will admit that the filmmakers did lay the groundwork for the ending.

"You're a fraud, we've got no problems now."

Klod said...

Can't wait to see it... unfortunately i still have to wait..italy is always late!!!!!!! :-(

Bryce Wilson said...

I hope you'll like it Klod. Sometimes its worth the wait.