Deliver Us from Evil is a well-made and well-intentioned misfire. Its director and co-writer, Scott Derrickson, is a man of deep Christian faith, interested in telling stories in the vein of Flannery O’Connor and intent on using the grotesque to scare modern man out of his spiritual malaise. Here, Derrickson attempts to take the exorcism genre of horror film and blend it with the slasher flick and the cop thriller, building the story around the exploits of real-life NYPD Sgt. Ralph Sarchie.
It’s a clever idea, especially from a studio/marketing point of view: satisfy several audiences opening weekend. And it’s an exciting challenge for a filmmaker: blend genres in a way that hasn’t yet been attempted. But the problem is that by combining these possession and exorcism elements with “the fight scene” and “the high-stakes finale,” Derrickson has accidentally made light of something that is no laughing matter: the reality of demons.
Exorcisms are not quick, they are rarely gory, and they’re never The Thing You Need To Quickly Finish So You Can Save A Character’s Life. But Deliver Us from Evil portrays them as all three, and throws in a dueling-daggers knife fight between cop and possessed perp that is straight out of Blade (for the uninitiated, a fantastical vampire franchise). Then, the same victim, whose possessing demon is attempting to start an epidemic of possessions, slaughters a supporting character after said dagger-duel. Yes, demons are real, and they are terrifying, but this film often takes something real and terrifying and paints it using shades of Hollywood’s lamest tropes.
That said, my American film-going palette found this movie watchable. It was spooky and startling the way you want a scary movie to spook and startle you, but I was never terrified. God is God in this film, and evil does not prevail, so the broad strokes are all in place. We agree with this film’s worldview, which is a nice thing. The character progression of Sgt. Ralph Sarchie, played by Eric Bana, will satisfy the orthodox Catholic viewer. But I didn’t connect with any of the buddy-cop banter, and the domestic struggles of the cop and his wife were not compelling. The acting was solid, if not exceptional. Olivia Munn nailed her New Yawk accent as Mrs. Sarchie. Joel McHale appears as Sgt. Sarchie’s partner, cracking entirely too many jokes. Fr. Mendoza, the Hip Jesuit (Édgar Ramírez), is indeed hip, with motorcyclist hair, a sweet leather jacket, chemistry with the ladies, and an accent thicker than his rather unbelievable backstory.
There’s a real attempt in the film to talk about Christ’s forgiveness of sins, of the darkness that inhabits the hearts of “good people”, and the dramatic necessity of repentance. These subjects are rarely portrayed onscreen, and Christian filmmakers seldom get the chance to do this kind of thing with the plentiful budget and quality cast evident in Deliver Us from Evil. But, unfortunately, the film often depicts Catholic clergy, practices, and doctrine too sloppily to get a pass.
Another weakness is that one of the most poignant and tragic elements of demonic possession—the suffering endured by the possessed—is treated in cursory fashion, in the space of half of a minute. The climax is moving and well done, and finally portrays in powerful fashion the suffering person beneath the gory layers of bloody make-up. But it is at the climax, and until those thirty seconds arrive, the movie feels like a vampire flick, with precious little dramatic indication of the humanity of the victims of possession—it’s as if the cops are fighting the undead.
Accentuating the humanity of the victims in this narrative could have added a deeper dramatic element to the knife fights, chases, and fisticuffs Deliver Us from Evil has in abundance, but the heroes are too often mere fighting automatons. In the end, Deliver Us from Evil tries to deliver too many things to too many audiences, and ends up distracting from the sobering reality of the spiritual battle that rages on.
(Note: Deliver Us from Evil is rated “R” for bloody violence, grisly images, and language.)