Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Last Exorcism (2010) Sleight Of Hand, Magnified

You know when movies leave you with just enough to form your own interpretation, thereby making you mull over it for a while after you've shut off the TV, imagining hypothetical pathways down which the movie might have intended to go?

I like that.

I know there is a general "either you like it or you hate it" feeling about director Daniel Stamm and producer Eli Roth's The Last Exorcist out there - I've got friends who are steadfast in their opinion either way. That's fine. Everyone seemed to see something different. Even among those who liked it, there are varying viewpoints on what happened, what the movie meant, what the central theme may or may not have been. All I know is this: The Last Exorcist made me ponder what I had just seen long after I was done watching it, and for that, it earns points.

To give a full, blow-by-blow account as I often do would be to give away far too much. I do, however, want to offer my opinion on what I saw. To be honest, it's only one of my interpretations...but we'll get to that in a bit. First, allow me to give you some of the basics.

Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is an ultra-charismatic preacher who's been groomed for the pulpit since he was a child. When he talks, people listen and testify, no matter what he says - proven in a hilarious little bit regarding a "banana bread sermon." He has a loving wife, an energetic deaf son, and a high standing in the community as a preacher and exorcist. There's a problem, though: Marcus has lost his faith. He's on a new crusade after discovering an exorcism's role in the death of a child, and he wants to expose exorcism as a "sham." The documentary crew is there to film him as he engages in his "last exorcism," so he can show step by step the ways in which he himself has scammed believers out of thousands of dollars.

He randomly chooses a handwritten cry for help out of a pile and takes the case of young Nell (Ashley Bell) in a backwoods Louisiana town. Marcus is met with instant hostility from Nell's brother Caleb, and fire-and-brimstone rhetoric and belief from Nell's father Louis (Louis Herthem). Marcus is slick, though. He gets the father to agree to film the exorcism and sets about earning Nell's trust. Through some sleight of hand, he causes the water Nell has her feet in to "boil," indicating a demon is indeed inside her and needs to come out.

Marcus performs the exorcism, and we are treated to parallel shots of how he will set the whole thing up to look authentic. You have to chuckle at the audacity, the creativity, the slickness, and the brass balls of the whole operation. After an emotional performance, Marcus proclaims Nell free, counts his money, and leaves for his motel.

From here, the movie takes one of its 90-degree turns.

Nell shows up at the motel, acting strangely. After a hospital visit, Marcus shows up again to find that Nell has sliced her brother in the face. The father, Louis, takes his other child to the hospital while Marcus and the film crew keep an eye on Nell.

You think Nell acting strangely before...

Nell gets downright scary here: staring, speaking in two voices, "drowning" a doll, even killing a cat with the camera as the crew sleeps. She remembers none of it, though. Marcus feels he's in over his head and believes she should have psychiatric treatment. Louis will have none of it, and after discovering that Nell is...shall we say...carrying more than a possible demon inside, demands - shotgun and all - that Marcus perform another exorcism.

Now, here is where I will tread carefully. I really don't want to give away anything to those who haven't seen the film. If you have seen it, bear with me. If you have NOT seen The Last Exorcism, I'm going to be VERY clear where the spoilers start and VERY clear when they end. OK? OK.


Alright, are we clear? Good...let's continue.

You've seen the movie, you know how it ends as we see it: second exorcism seems to reveal that Nell wasn't possessed, but suffering from extreme shame from becoming pregnant despite the teachings of her zealous father. Everything seems like it will (eventually) be fine. The pastor from Nell's former church arrives to reconnect with the family. Marcus and the crew leave, meet the supposed father of Nell's baby, discover conflicting evidence, and return to find Nell and the others gone and Satanic symbols painted all over the house. Later, they stumble upon a dark ceremony where Nell is forced to give birth to a demon baby, which is thrown on a fire and "reborn." Marcus finds sudden resolve and faces down the demon while the film crew runs and is killed just as one of Nell's drawings foretold.

One interpretation is that we have seen exactly what we were intended to see. The story played out, no frills. That's the end, much like an old 70's demon versus man midnight movie. Check out the recent The House of the Devil for a more direct homage to that subgenre. Definitely a down note, but a common trait of that style.

Another interpretation is along the same lines, only with the added bonus that Nell was in on it the whole time, and everything leading Marcus to that end point was pre-ordained, whether through supernatural or clever man-made means. A footnote to that outlook is that maybe Marcus was meant to go there, guided not by demons but by God in order to win back his faith. "In order to believe in one, you have to believe in the other," Marcus says early in the film (and I'm probably paraphrasing - I don't have it on right now).

Now for an interpretation that I seem to gravitate to, and it's one of many that seem plausible. I thought it out, but that doesn't mean I'm the first person to get the idea. I'm sure someone had the idea before me. Here goes: I offer that not only was Nell in on it, but that Marcus orchestrated the entire thing from start to finish. Early in the movie, Marcus' wife tells us that he is heavily involved with community theater: writing plays, performing special effects, and other areas of it. We know Marcus is charismatic. People believe him. We also can see he likes magic tricks, as he uses them in his sermons and playing with his son. His whole exorcism act is based on magic tricks and sleight of hand. At every turn, Marcus is the central character, no matter what. Things are happening, but we are focused on him. That's sleight of hand carried out to a larger scale: focus on one thing, and something else is happening just out of your sight. What if everything was already meant to play out that way? What if Marcus wrote the community theater production of a lifetime, complete with the special effects he loved? While it can be argued as something supernatural guiding the path, from the random choosing of the assignment to Nell's prophetic drawings, it can also be argued that it was all written by Marcus himself to be that way.

I don't know. That's just my take on it. Take it or leave it as you will. And that's why I like the movie. It made me use my brain and, dare I say, my imagination.


A few final thoughts about the movie: the direction by Daniel Stamm was excellent, building tension, making us familiar with the characters, maybe even engaging us in sleight of hand. The acting was great, but the performances by Patrick Fabian as Marcus, Ashley Bell as Nell, and Louis Herthum as Louis really stood out to me. They were believable, realistic characters. You feel and understand Marcus' inner turmoil, smile as Nell giggles, and have pity on Louis and his struggle to deal with family issues. And while the ending is a talking point, there were some parts of it that seemed overwrought, but that's really a small nitpick compared to how the rest of the film held up.

A movie about possession? The power of faith and belief, both good and bad? A preacher and his own inner demons? Perhaps something more? Maybe it's all those things, or another animal entirely.

Depends on what you believe.


  1. Interesting theory Dod! But how does the camera crew fit in? Would they have been in on it? Who would the video be for exactly?Still, interesting to think about.

    It's funny we have just about all the same points! Glad you enjoyed it, I had a feeling that you might!

  2. That was the hole in my theory: who is the video for?

    I would add that the film crew was in on it, too. But the only thing I can come up with right now is that the video was meant to be his "big production."

    *Someone* had to edit the video and add titles, credits, etc.

    I like movies that make you develop theories. Kinda like LOST did...

  3. I don't thin Marcus was in on it. I don't think the film crew was. I don't think Nell or her father were. I think Nell was being raped by the local pastor, I think that is the real reason her father pulled her out of the church, but didn't want to say so. I think the pastor got her pregnant and she went fuckin NUTS. Then at the end, since the dad knows she is pregnant, the pastor comes with a bunch of brainwashed church goers and holds a "satanic" ritual to kill the baby and thus dispose of any evidence. The only thing I cannot fit into my reasoning is the pictures Nell drew.

  4. And that's one of the things I enjoyed about the movie, is that different people have different ideas as to what happened.

  5. I think you're a genius. There was, I understand, an alternate ending shot where it was explicitly revealed that the whole thing was a con by Marcus' church.

  6. I wouldn't say I'm a genius, per se, but thanks! I had no idea that there was such an alternate ending - I'd like to see it.