This is the best shot in the film and one of the great climactic moments in recent film, even in a year filled with ’em.

I don’t like to summarize the films I review. I know it’s standard practice in movie reviews but I tend to think people are pretty aware of most films, at least enough to see a trailer (though I should maybe include trailers for lesser known stuff) and therefore have an inkling of what a movie is about. If the trailer is misleading, I’ll say so.

The reason I’m saying anything about this is because the concept of The Last Exorcism is its most immediate selling feature. Also, the trailer may be a bit misleading. Everyone will be expecting the faux doc where the faithless preacher encounters true Biblical evil, and of course this movie is that as well, but where we’re being misled is in the fact that this film is a character study of Reverend Cotton Marcus and a somewhat sly reaction to the religious hysteria we’ve all watched rise and rise out of the American mid-west.

Patrick Fabian’s performance as the Reverend is total. I don’t know him from other work, but the guy just disappears into this role. He is at his best when you can see through the shades of deceit and exploitation which characterize what he does (and he admits to this even if he tries not to quite go as far as saying he’s a fake). What lies underneath these layers ends up being a firmly moral man, a hero in so many words, and an easy guy to get behind even when he is gleefully counting the money he gets handed for basically doing a magic show for a family that needs a whole lot more. He might do something so obviously cynical and selfish, but turn around and use a man’s religious convictions to manipulate him into quitting the booze and bettering his life and therefore the lives of his children. Cotton Marcus is a man who is very aware of the ignorance in the people he deals with and he talks about that a lot. It’s interesting that he feeds off of it on such a selfish level while using that same ignorance to influence people for their own benefit.

Even as Cotton walks a fine line between his inner goodness and the relativism and equivocation that let him be what he is in spite of his cynicism and rising lack of faith, the film also walks the line between being a deconstruction of superstition and out-moded, damaging rituals and lifestyles and a genuine supernatural horror film.

What sells the idea that something truly demonic might be going on with Nell is the performance of Ashley Bell. This sweetly innocent yet eerily devout young woman is a character owned as completely by Bell as Cotton Marcus is by Fabian. When Nell is not doing creepy things that make us think she might be truly possessed, she is exactly the victim that the film needs her to be. More to the point, she’s exactly the victim Marcus needs her to be to find an element of redemption in what he does. If he can help her with her apparently psychological issues, he wasn’t just a con artist after all.

Ashley Bell’s performance helps create a possessed girl that doesn’t feel quite like others we’ve seen before. Goes a long way toward keeping the movie fresh.

Ashley Bell’s physicality in the role is very impressive. You will see her contort her body in fucked up ways you haven’t seen short of reality TV and it is truly frightening. That Bell is double-jointed or whatever it is that allows her to do this without special effects ramps up the authenticity of the film. That there are no CG enhancements means that it could very well be Nell acting out as a result of trauma she’s undergone.

There are a few great shifts as the film plays a shell game with what is really going on here. Just as we’re sure it’s one thing, we find something else out that makes it look like it’s probably something else. The second act becomes something of a detective film as Cotton and his documentarian allies do their best to unravel the mysteries of the Sweetzer family out of curiosity as much as moral duty. Every explanation they uncover is plausible until it isn’t, and the final and total reality seems so unlikely by this point that it is completely effective and surprising. The film so well convinces you that there’s a rational explanation for “all this” that you are left unprepared for the ending, even if you were led to believe in the trailers that “oh shit, something demonic be goin’ down up in here”. I saw the trailers too, guys, and you should still be coaxed into a false sense of security by this. Part of that is owed to the effective marketing which gives away a lot of Nell’s creepy bits which are done away with in due course by the film’s series of potential explanations. Nothing of the classically horrific truth is given away and you enter into the ending feeling, like the documentarians and Cotton, pretty secure in the idea that this is just a fucked up family and/or fucked up town.

In the moment where we find out that the worst is true, we watch as Cotton reaches inward and finds a core of real faith and conviction in spite of what he has long pretended to be. Watching him go toward the fire ready to battle true evil is an inspiring moment made more so because we get almost no time to process the implications before the film’s gruesome ending, which ultimately leaves Cotton’s fate uncertain.

I think if I’d seen this 2010 film a little earlier, it would have made my Top 15. Not only is The Last Exorcism a worthy successor to The Exorcist, it is also among the best of the rapidly stagnating “found footage/faux doc” genre.


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