Don’t Eat Me, I’m Only the Cameraman, Part 4: The Last Exorcism
Early in The Last Exorcism, the young, vital Suthun’ preacher, Cotton Marcus, bets ten dollars to the producer of his documentary that he can slip a complete non sequitur into his hellzapoppin’ sermon — a reference to banana bread. Not only does Marcus make a cool ten bucks when he slides a joyous shout-out to one of my favorite baked goods into a glory-hallelujah call-and-answer session, but he gets to be the smartest guy in two rooms: his church and whatever place the potential viewer finds himself watching the documentary on Marcus’s sideline as a demon slayer. Sure, Marcus likes money, but he likes screwing with peoples’ heads, too. The art of the con, if you will. In a recent Film Comment interview, actor Paul Giamatti said that for him, acting is like being a con man; you make people believe you’re someone else for a period of time, and besides material benefit, he simply enjoys the thrill of that kind of performance.1 The way he talked about acting seemed particularly resonant as I watched Patrick Fabian in The Last Exorcism. The Reverend Cotton Marcus is an actor — a con man. The film posits him as possibly representative of most men of religion, while the film itself employs the aesthetic of being a documentary, fitting neatly into the trend of docu-horror films that have nestled themselves into mainstream fright flicks. The film itself, therefore, is a bit of a con job. It wants to make you shriek, catch your breath, bury your head under the covers, perhaps even spit a popcorn seed fifteen feet across a crowded theater — and it does so in the guise of the closest cinematic approximation we have of “the unvarnished truth.” The entire film is, in essence, one of Cotton’s banana nut muffins.
Can I get an “Amen”?
The seams in the disguise are there, if you care to take even a cursory glance. Many critics noted at the time that the film’s conceit of being shot by a single camera — and by a crew whose purpose is to disprove the reality of demonic possession — is broken several times throughout the narrative. There’s way too much coverage for dialogue exchanges, establishing shots that could only have been staged (and even then, it doesn’t seem “in character” for the cameraman to have done so), and the music is typical haunted house pap. If we can get spoileriffic, there’s also the problem of the film essentially being the raw footage. Since everyone involved in the filmmaking ostensibly dies at the end of the film, who edited the film together? Who added the music? These are fundamental formal problems that out the film as a con job, but its lapses are nowhere as egregious as in the awful District 9. Instead, The Last Exorcism’s sins feel like those of a first-time filmmaker who lacks confidence in his visual and auditory storytelling capabilities. The bludgeoning tactics of the film’s soundtrack may be the influence of newly minted impresario Eli Roth, who served as one of the film’s executive producers, but they’re probably simply the product of a director who doesn’t just want you to hear bones snap; he wants the impact to leave dents in your eardrums. You’d be forgiven for thinking at some points that the sound mix for this film got swapped with a Steven Seagal actioner.
Overcompensating braggadocio also sent the film’s ending off the deep end… At least, that was the impression given by most critics upon the film’s initial release. I rather loved it. As a born-and-raised Lutheran boy, I wasn’t sure whether or not to take offense at the fact that the takeaway message of the film is that the Lutherans really are out to get you. A fair enough supposition, I suppose. Most Lutherans aren’t secret devil worshippers, but the ones I know did do their part to put George W. Bush in office twice. Same difference. What intrigued me most about the film’s distinctly Protestant milieu is that it perfectly captures (perhaps unintentionally; I don’t really know Daniel Stamm’s religious background) the schizoid religious conservatism that insists on two perhaps-incompatible things. On the one hand, that Satan is a literal, physical force; that demons are real and to be feared; that possession is a historical fact. On the other hand, that almost all contemporary cases of possession are the result of psychological afflictions; that ghosts, goblins, and other forms of quasi-Catholic religious arcana are a bunch of laughable hooey; that miracles happen, but only to people of your own particular denomination. In short, American Protestants are sort of like the anti-Ghostbusters: “We’re NOT ready to believe you!”
The Religious Right is also (apparently) a breeding ground for predatory hucksters, grinning matchstick men who Get Religion so long as it gets them into your wallet. What The Last Exorcism does with that stereotype is rather refreshing. Cotton Marcus doesn’t really believe what he preaches; he lives high on the hog with his family in a cushy suburban mansion and drives a roomy SUV on his way to fleece rubes of their hard-earned cash with his spurious “exorcisms.” But he feels really guilty about it. And if we’re hesitant to take his word for it at the film’s outset, the genuine concern he expresses for the alleged possession victim in his titular last case, Nell Sweetzer, is both plausible and affecting, because he’s obviously letting himself get pulled down a deep, dark whirlpool he is completely unequipped to paddle his way out of. His journey of rediscovering faith by confronting the forces of darkness isn’t really anything new, but it is something special. The notion that one has to be religious in order to abide by a moral code is ludicrous, but the idea that one behaves morally specifically because of ones religious convictions is a drama that is rarely played with a straight face. Marcus’s failure to rescue the girl in this case could be seen as divine retribution for having been a two-faced, insincere peddler of fictions; it could be seen as the tragedy of a man returning to his faith too late for it to do any good; it could be a martyr’s story. What I think the film communicates, rather than these simple explanations, is that when the chips are down (and I mean way down — you don’t get much further south of screwed than the bloody, blasphemous triumph of Lovecraftian evil), people have a surprising capacity for nobility. Even people who make a mockery of faith or the credulity of their trusting flock can find the courage to hold a candle to the darkness. There’s heroism in that.
Both Cotton and Nell are fleshed out by performers who, if there’s any cosmic justice, will have major career boosts from this film. They’re amazing. Ashley Bell might have the most thankless part as the latest successor to Linda Blair. She performs her own physical contortions, impersonates demon-speak with unsettlingly slithery vocal intonations, and otherwise suffers the indignities of being exorcised while in a perfectly stereotypical virginal nightgown. The burden of keeping the audience in suspense as to whether she’s really being possessed by a demon, or just a very disturbed young woman broken by the mental strain of growing up in a fundamentalist family, isn’t really helped by the script, which swerves her character between sweet, gee-golly country girl and Jesus-Fuck-You hysterics. Give the young lady credit for finding a keen balance between the two extremes and maintaining it. In any case, it’s difficult not to feel complete pity for Nell, a victim of culture and circumstance. Bad enough to be possessed and/or brainwashed by her medieval father. Then it turns out she was raped by a demon, a la Rosemary’s Baby. Christ almighty.
As Nell’s father, Louis Herthum (playing a character named, eerily, Louis) could have (or should have had) Scott Wilson’s career as a character actor.2 Saddled with playing the film’s nominal villain right up until the last ten minutes, the man has to convey the kind of religious fanaticism that would make Christine O’Donnell crap her pants, and mix it with the kind of sincerity and sorrow that can only be felt by a father at wit’s end, who doesn’t know how to help his daughter, and only knows how to seek solace from his bottle or his gun. It’s another kind of flat character that, on the page, reeks of liberal atheist condescension, but when brought alive on screen, is still strangely empathetic, even in his most frightening moments.
Patrick Fabian is the star of the show, though, and he’s wonderful. Even while playing a character who’s mugging for the camera, he’s not really mugging. I get the impression that he could play anyone from Moses Pray in a Paper Moon remake to the Big Bad in a future season of TNT’s delicious Leverage; maybe even a yuppie version of Willie Loman in a 21st century Death of a Salesman. Arrogant, suave, tender, earnest, outmatched, and (by profession) a bit of a stage magician, he really is a Protestant minister in the flesh. Like any good “jump scare,” the depth of Fabian’s characterization sort of sneaks up on you in an obvious way. You suspect it’s there; you even know approximately how it will play out; but it’s satisfying and alive in all the same frustrating and delightful ways.
Like Cotton Marcus, the film uses flagrant artifice to elicit authentic emotions and psychological states in the viewer. Deception and theatricality. They work for Batman, and they work for preachers. They can be used for both praiseworthy and nefarious ends. Though the film’s flaws prevent it from achieving greatness, the tension between its dead-on observations and techniques and its more risible contrivances illustrates the strange relationship believers often have with their own shepherds. The film is gutsy, slick, compelling, and perhaps, ultimately, even good for the soul — but it has all the earmarks of charlatanism.
Just as the film articulates the deep distrust mainstream Americans have of evangelicalism, it also articulates the deep distrust evangelicals have for purveyors of faith. As credulous as Christians can be toward their self-appointed gatekeepers, the Protestant tradition is rooted in schism, paranoia, and individualist tendencies. While the Roman Catholic Church has soldiered on in Western civilization — damaged, bruised, plagued by corruption and secrets — it has remained relatively intact. Protestant denominations, by contrast, proliferate like the locusts that came to the aid of the enslaved Hebrews in ancient Egypt. Splintered, divided, audacious, and enfeebled by the same kinds of corruption and scandals that cling to the Catholic Church, evangelical churches in the U.S. may have rejected the ostentatious cathedrals and garb of their Vatican-based progenitor, but they’ve replaced it with political grandstanding, moralistic cultural crusades, and rigid doctrinal dogmatism. This is all cloaked in populism; it’s supposedly on behalf of the real folk, the salt of the earth, the America mainstream that they conveniently criticize when they need sound bites.
In a similar fashion, the film harnesses the hallmarks of “found footage:” the straight dope, the real deal. Documentary style genre fictions — particularly docu-horror — walk the thin line between real and imaginary in order to artificially induce real emotions with the appearance of total plausibility. As with previous efforts, the illusion is too obviously constructed, too potent to be mistaken for reality. But the milieu of this particular film has led me to revisit a question I pondered in my first entry in this series: is it even desirable that a film be 100 percent indeterminable from the real thing?
A contemporary debate that still persists in evangelical circles revolves around a core hermeneutical question: Should the words of the Bible be interpreted literally or metaphorically? Is it a book of object life lessons or a historical account? And even after answering those questions, interpretation of the meanings will vary wildly. A similar problem of aesthetics is relevant in regards to documentary-style genre fiction. Do we want to be “in on” the hoax or not? How real should fiction appear to be in a world where a preponderance of information is reported in the same aesthetic terms?
I can’t answer these questions. The Last Exorcism offers an intriguing perspective, though. The nightmare that confronts Cotton Marcus, in thematic terms, is a commonplace life lesson inverted: he’s a man who discovers that everything he thought was a lie turns out to be true. He’s an author of fictions, and his fiction turns out to be more terrible and overpowering than he could ever imagine. In documenting this story, Stamm employs a method that is designed to go beyond emotional veracity into the realm of literal veracity. The lesson implied by his methodology seems to be the opposite of his protagonist’s: everything we perceive as being true we know to be false. But the power of persuasion attempted by the docu-horror aesthetic is a good deal more transgressive of conventional filmmaking — which we all know is illusion based on the simple fact that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. In more conventional formal narratives, our belief in the “truth” of the story depends almost as much on our suspension of disbelief, our emotional investment in the story, as it does on the craftsmanship of the filmmakers. Documentary techniques try to alleviate that “burden of proof” (so to speak) so that we can more forcefully be made into virtual participants in the dramatic reality of the story.
The difference, to me, seems to be a division between a leap of faith and the power of persuasion. Conventional narrative techniques ask a lot more of us as viewers; they present a story, without pretending that it’s a literal truth. In this way, they cater more to the power of faith that we will get something out of it, as well as show more faith in us to do the work necessary to be convinced of their emotional and thematic relevance to our lives. Documentary narratives are much more evangelical. They tell us that they’re literally true; they leave much less leeway for interpretation. They don’t trust us to be creative, or to put forth the effort of investment. They’re much more overtly persuasive; by trying to avoid the appearance of putting pressure on the viewer to buy into the narrative, they actually reveal their own charlatanism more explicitly.
That is to say, so far. Perhaps a day will come when those seams will become invisible. I don’t expect that conventional narrative techniques will disappear, and I expect that the documentary techniques will continue to proliferate in genre filmmaking. It occurs to me that the Bible itself is an example of epistolary and third-person narratives forming a series of perspectives on central theses about the way the universe works. Perhaps the epistolary impulse in genre cinema, as opposed to the more dispassionate narrative impulse, is analogous to the way brands of Christianity (and religion as a whole, I suppose) have emerged and diverged. Those who are more in the Pauline, Lutheran path might favor the documentary techniques, while those who are more in a unitarian universalist tradition may favor the Catholic pageantry of conventional narratives or more abstract cinematic techniques. I don’t know if this is true. I suspect that as the technological singularity approaches, humanity’s relationship with the media will assume more religious and spiritual connotations. At the moment, it’s impossible to see how that will play out, but a film like The Last Exorcist almost seems to be a portent of things to come. Unfortunately, like its protagonist, I’m not sure if this will mean that everything I believe will turn out to be a lie, or if all the things I believe to lies will turn out to be true.
Perhaps it won’t matter. Perhaps the Lutherans will jumpstart the apocalypse by summoning a badass demon, and all the stuff we watch on YouTube will be shaky videos of fire, brimstone, and demonically possessed teenagers falling off trampolines.
Edited by Matt Kessen.
- Giamatti played “himself” in the metaphysically rich film Cold Souls two years ago, which, based on the way he guards his privacy, would definitely fall under the aegis of a sort of con job. ↩
- His career stretches back to the early 80s, and though I’ve seen a few things he’s been in, I’ve never noticed him. I’ll pay closer attention from now on. ↩