The irony of Daniel Stamm’s pseudo-documentary bearing Eli Roth’s name to guarantee it distribution and theatrical bookings, is that the quality of the film is so far beyond anything Roth is capable of making, and that tonally, it’s about 180 degrees from a Roth film. The marketing, television spots, and trailers seem to promise exactly the kind of trash you would expect from Roth, and while it may get a certain audience purchasing tickets and into the theatre, it’s probably not the audience who will enjoy the film, and it’s also a misrepresentation of the content and quality of the film itself.
The film’s greatest strengths are the acting and writing, and they sustain the movie for the majority of its running time. It’s probably a third of the movie before we even get to the farmhouse where the afflicted Nell lives, and half of the film before we get to the first exorcism. No, the screenplay takes it’s time in establishing the character of preacher Cotton Marcus in pseudo-documentary fashion. We’re introduced to Cotton and his family over the first 20-30 minutes of the film, and the interchanges are well-written enough, and the acting sublime enough, that this could be a real documentary. Patrick Fabian, who plays Cotton Marcus, has been an omni-present television series guest star for the last twenty years on shows such as Millenium, Friends, Providence, 24, Joan of Arcadia, Veroncia Mars, and Pushing Daisies. He normally has grey-white hair, but for The Last Exorcism it’s been dyed brown, which makes him look a little younger than he normally does, and also helps Fabian be a little less recognizable to those who may remember him from series television.
His character is largely based on child evangelist Marjoe Gortner, who in 1972 had a crisis of faith and allowed himself to be the subject of the documentary Marjoe, which exposed the world of faith healers and Revivalist sermonizing. The opening of the film explores the character of Cotton, beginning with his induction into the world of preaching as a child minister at the behest of his preacher father. He had a natural talent for it, ran with it, and continued to excel with it as an adult and family man. But with the birth of his own son, who has some medical issues, and with the current economic crisis, Cotton Marcus is undergoing a crisis of conscience and faith. He’s examining what lies beneath his natural abilities to inspire or control a crowd, and the economic and moral responsibilities he’s begun to feel for his parishioners. One aspect of his practice has always been exorcisms, and just in general, dealing with the more superstitious elements that come with being a religious leader in some of the more rural parts of the South. To this point, Cotton has always towed the line that if something helps someone, even if that’s only because they believe in it, then it’s worth doing. In other words, he may not believe in ghosts or demons, but if an exorcism works because it helps clear the conscience of those who do believe in such things, then its as legitimate a solution as anything else. Sometimes the nature of the treatment depends on the belief system of those being treated.
But after some of the recent developments in the news, with an overzealous exorcism having caused the death of a young boy, and with the Catholic church planning to begin promoting exorcism more heavily than ever, Cotton Marcus sees this as the time to perform one last exorcism, invite a documentary film crew along to expose it for the sham it is, and then to hang up his hat and concentrate on the parts of his practice he can actually believe in. Which may mean becoming a used car salesman.
What makes all of this so special, and so fascinating to watch, is again the acting and writing. Patrick Fabian is so good as Cotton Marcus, so social and affable, and his performance so multi-layered, that we’re won over by him personally, and sympathetic to his plight. We see him preaching to his congregation, where he slips a banana bread recipe into his sermonizing just to prove to the film crew that he’s such a skilled orator he can successfully slip anything into his speech and still keep his crowd going. Later, when he prepares for the first exorcism at the house, he takes the film crew on a tour of the bedroom, and all of the tools and devices he’s created and planted to supplement the experience. He’s a Barnam-esque showman, with a pride in his work but also with a child’s delight at the prankishness of it all. And there’s a joie de vivre in his presence, whether he’s speaking to the crowd or speaking to the camera, that’s infectious and winning.
Yet at the same time, we also see the other side of Cotton, the family man who’s genuinely concerned for his family, who’s having a hard time making ends meet, and who feels socially responsible. He doesn’t want to be misleading anyone any more, particularly if it could cause harm. He’s reached a new level in his desires to be socially responsible, and believes that in debunking his own exorcism practices, he can help demystify it in general, and prevent it from being used to manipulate, abuse, or hurt unknowing believers in the future. So we get a very three-dimensional portrait of Cotton Marcus; we see him at his extroverted, social, entertaining best, and we also see him as a more introspective and socially concerned father and family man.
And all of this is portrayed so effortlessly and with such guileless ease by Fabian that it’s an entertaining joy to watch. This is someone with all of the skill, craft, and experience you would expect from twenty years as a working actor, who’s never had his shot at a lead role like this before, and certainly never had the chance to headline a big theatrical release. I’m not sure if there was any idea how big the release would be while filming; I assume since it was shot on such a low budget that the actors and production staff probably assumed they’d be lucky to get any kind of theatrical release at all, and it would likely go straight to DVD and cable. This was before the festivals, Roth putting his name on the film, and the pick-up for distribution. But Fabian never gives it less than 100%, and does so with such confidence, natural charm, and subtle assuredness that it’s a wonder he isn’t already a name actor. He may not immediately get feature leads in Hollywood films immediately following this, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t become a very sought-after character actor who’s constantly booked in much higher-profile projects than he’s ever been before.
And then there’s Ashley Bell, who plays the afflicted, Nell Sweetzer. Just like Fabian, Bell gives a wonderfully natural performance, one where you never see her acting. And she has quite a bit to do, from the exorcism scenes to her multi-faceted portrayal of an innocent, introverted farm girl dealing with her beloved mother’s death and an alcoholic father. Since the film had virtually no budget, and therefore little to no special effects budget, the frights we witness during the exorcisms rely on double-jointed contortions, which in and of itself is freakishly off-putting. But there are subtle nuances to how she plays some elements of the exorcism scenes, as well as the way she handles her character as a whole, that really help build the suspense of the film as well as the reality of the setting.
It’s the combination of these elements and the way director Stamm expertly handles them all, working with a single camera no less, that really speaks to his talent, craft, and professionalism. He’s created a film with two lead performances that are among the year’s best. And he’s crafted a film that, for most of its running time, engrosses with character, performance, and very intelligently and deftly developed story.
As the film approaches its climax, the intensity and suspense ratchets up, and it unfortunately hits a point where the train runs off the tracks. There’s a story twist in the last ten minutes or so of the film that initially appears rife with possibility. But the way in which it’s handled is ultimately disappointing. It’s good for a bit of shock, but it raises a lot of questions that can’t really be answered based on what has preceded it. As a result, it doesn’t feel like something organic, or the result of hidden groundwork that has been laid and then revealed. Sure, you can point to a couple of things earlier in the film that may signal it in a very superficial way, but there are huge logic gaps, and it’s the equivalent of those internet videos of something unobtrusive, where 20 seconds into the clip a ghoul is screaming at you in close-up.
What has come before, the level of story and performance, is simply too well-executed and deserving of a better ending. I’m all for twists and shock endings, even things that throw a new element into the mix, but Stamm hasn’t crafted this change-up with the same level of craft that he’s demonstrated for the rest of the film. The end result is that the audience is left with a sense of confusion and pointlessness, as well as a sense of betrayal by the fact they thought they had been watching a better film. And again, it’s not simply the content of the ending, which many people may have arguments with by itself, but the sloppy handling of that content.
The Last Exorcism is still a film worth seeing, and one of the better releases out in theatres right now. Far better than you would think for having Eli Roth’s name plastered across it as a producer. Yet it loses a point or two in my book for the handling of the ending, and ends up being a flawed film with some great performances and a lot of potential, instead of the sleeper classic it could have been. It’s still made a ton of money, already over 10 times its budget in less than a week, so it’s been hugely profitable for its distributor regardless. But a lot of audiences have disliked the way it ends, and I have a feeling bad word-of-mouth will kill its theatrical run over the next few weeks, when this could have been the kind of movie to keep playing and gaining audiences for weeks or even months. And that’s a shame, because so much of it, about 80 minutes worth, is incredibly deserving of a large audience and a lengthy theatrical run.