I spent my undergraduate college years being shuffled around a grungy art school dormitory, where I finally ended up being the neighbor of two kind, sweet girls. Both were devout Christians, and one even believed she could speak in tongues -- something I once heard while quietly resting in my bed from the other side of the concrete wall. I admit to having naive and almost romantic notions of Southern religions -- shaped by films and books alike -- and to see some of these foreign ideologies brought to life felt terrifying and intriguing. If there's one thing I can positively conclude about the experience, it's that there are no right answers when it comes to personal faith. The Daniel Stamm directed and Eli Roth produced mockumentary The Last Exorcism explores this uncertainty through its strong characterization and clever use of horror film tropes to usurp expectations of the occult/exorcism subgenre.
Beware of spoilers ahead ...
Patrick Fabian delivers a solid performance as the disillusioned Reverend Cotton Marcus -- an evangelist who spent his childhood in the church, following in his preacher father's footsteps. His wife describes him as a performer -- no doubt from his dad grooming him to become, amongst other things, a master exorcist. Now the Reverend is exorcising a few demons of his own, after grappling with a particularly morbid possession case, and facing his own son's disability which was "healed" by science and not Christ.
The preacher wants to expose the fraud behind his ministry by inviting a documentary camera crew to follow along on one of his cases -- the Sweetzer family. Once there, we watch Marcus set the scene for the exorcism of Nell. The teenage girl lives on a rural farm with her volatile brother and distant father, who has been trying to hold them all together with God's love since the family matriarch passed away.
It's a smoke and mirrors performance from Marcus who amuses himself with the audience "off" camera, detailing his deception -- but justifying the trickery by explaining he has good intentions. When Marcus' first exorcism doesn't prove successful, Papa Sweetzer demands further help -- except Marcus is in the difficult position of revealing himself to be a complete fake if he can't convince Nell's father to get his daughter medical and psychological help. From there, the film is a slow boil to a grand finale -- a story arc which seems to have left audiences torn. It's an event which requires viewers to suspend their disbelief, a struggle central to the characters in Last Exorcism and similar to the film's theological subject matter overall.
It's obvious that Last Exorcism borrows from several other genre titles in both its execution (shaky cam titles like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity), as well as its story arc (Rosemary's Baby or even more so to me, The Wicker Man) -- and yes, there are even several well-worn exorcism tropes that come into play -- but Stamm and company use all these elements to their advantage. It's a gross oversimplification to dismiss the film's ending as a mock-up of the aforementioned titles, and those expecting it to wrap up in a neat, little package won't get what they want -- and why should they, considering the movie's theme? There are no definite answers here, but that's the beauty of Last Exorcism's story and performances. Fabian expertly straddles the line between dogged, earthly savior and charlatan. Really, one could draw a line down the middle of every player -- the dichotomy of fantasy and reality, faith and fear, pride and shame pervades the lives of all and is turned against us in the end, forcing us to face the same questions as its characters.
Like Nell's stories (which we're never sure are true in part or at all ... ), Last Exorcism's conclusion plays out in a fantastical, over the top way -- but who's to say that small town cults and fiery demons aren't really a stand in for a molesting preacher and a backyard abortion? You don't have to take a leap from the darkness into the fire like Reverend Marcus to appreciate Last Exorcism (though I remain unconvinced he was actually sold on his own convictions during that final moment ... ) -- but it's my hope that people will stop fixating on the film's ending, and start focusing on all the reasons why they like this clever and creepy character driven film.