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Read Nick's interview with writer/director Scott Derrickson here.
In his new film Deliver Us from Evil, director Scott Derrickson wants to deliver us into evil's midst. And the tensions wrapped up in that purpose speak to the space that he has carved out—slashed might be better—for himself as an artist.
On one side of Derrickson is the materialist skeptic who guffaws at Satan or evil or genre films, dressing up a quaint idea like metaphysics in red silk, horns, and pitchfork. On his other side is the sort of religious folk for whom seeing—being entertained by—a horror film (no matter how artful) is like playing with an Ouija board. (Please hear me: I'm not talking about personal preference here—no one has to see or like this film. I'm talking about Facile Moral Proclamations on cultural artifacts.)
You'd think holiness was vapid the way resisting evil has been so often recast as fleeing into ignorance. Or maybe Jesus' brother got his verbs confused? For both groups, it seems, Jesus Christ—the one who, within evil's midst, offered the model prayer which includes the request for delivery from the evil one—is powerless.
A variety of voice and vision is always good and will remain so. But in the climate I've described above—in which the materialist skeptic and the fundamentalist have unwittingly conspired to seal existence air-tight—an artist's voice can lend some fresh air. Her vision can open up the cosmos as if mystery just might be neither agnostic nor threatening, but sensible.
Referring to Flannery O'Connor as his hero and Mystery and Manners as his creative bible, Derrickson recently told me that the mid twentieth century novelist provided an effective apologetic for horror when she famously said, "[T]o the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures."
In Derrickson's latest shocker, an evil which will radically alter NYPD Sergeant Ralph Sarchie's life originates in a barren Iraqi desert, far away from the Bronx, where Sarchie makes a living policing one of the most dangerous precincts in America. That Deliver Us from Evil begins with a war scene before introducing us to its protagonist is significant—first, because of its dislocation from Sarchie. This malevolent threat begins wholly outside the film's protagonist. Sarchie's conflict is not merely with himself, and not even merely with other human beings.
This idea, that evil involves spiritual forces beyond human agency, is only further entrenched when we're taken underground in Iraq where three United States Marines are drawn into a creepy subterranean chamber. Above ground, we are horrified by soldiers shooting one another. But as the opening scene transitions underground, it suggests there is a war going on beneath the war.
And the war beneath the war—the spiritual one that we rarely see, the one from which Christ taught us to pray for delivery—is most horrific of all (note, too, that much of the investigation will take Sarchie to basements). The Marines' gear which might illumine the chamber goes defective, and we're suddenly experiencing the darkness with them. For the moment it's still an evil we can't see, and yet we've been ushered into the prospect of perceiving it, of even being aware of it. In the pitch black, we hear terrified screams.
The beginning of Deliver Us from Evil confirms that old saying: "war is hell."
This film embodies a specific sort of confirmation, though. Deliver Us from Evil is, in part, about restoring meaningfulness to our long-empty language about evil, Satan, devils, hell, and more. Derrickson's is a cinema of re-enchantment, one that captures with lively cinematic language the horrific attempts to silence existence unto nothingness or obedient defiance.
Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) doesn't believe in Satan. He believes what he sees, and as a cop in one of the most dangerous precincts in America, he's also seen too much human meanness and suffering to believe in God.
Early scenes that show Sarchie dealing with crimes as they are happening insinuate the hardening effect that fighting against this onslaught is having on him. He is on a path to succumb to the problem, the early negative effects of which are revealed in the drama of his family life with wife Jen (Olivia Munn) and daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson). A lapsed Catholic, Sarchie waves goodbye to his wife and daughter as they head to church on Sunday morning. Sarchie has seen it all, it seems, and it's all bleak.
But at the police department Sarchie begins responding to calls about strange happenings, and sees some suspicious activity that he's not seen before. As he becomes interested in investigating these calls about the paranormal, he gets involved with some poor souls who have an otherworldly gleam in their eyes.
Sarchie is flanked by his smart talking, knife wielding partner Butler (Joel McHale) and, eventually, an exorcising priest named Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez). The former provides some Bronx-worthy banter while assisting with the procedural nature of the investigation; the latter provides spiritual support, whether it's conversing with Sarchie about the problem of evil or leading the confrontation against the sinister mystery that the sergeant has uncovered. It's a mystery that you'd be right to guess involves three U.S. marines who are still "at war" after returning from Iraq.
"There's two types of evil in this world," Mendoza warns Sarchie, "secondary evil, the evil that men do, and primary evil, which is something else entirely."
Sarchie doesn't believe it: "I've seen some horrible things, nothing that can't be explained by human nature."
"Then you haven't seen true evil," the Castilian-Hungarian priest says stoically, unthreatened.
This exchange is the film's drama. Sarchie's response is quintessentially American. In his excellent book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, Andrew Delbanco (director of American Studies at Columbia University) argues persuasively that we've lost the conceptual grammar that would help us make sense of evil since we've stopped believing in Satan, devils, and evil.
Delbanco, a self-described secular liberal, argues passionately that our collective anxiety in the aftermath of this loss is mounting into a crisis. Dismissed as an old-time fantasy, Satan has receded into the background—but may have become the more powerful for it.
The idea that Satan has "receded into the background" means combining a police procedural with a supernatural horror film makes a lot of sense. In his excellent book American Cinema / American Culture, John Belton says that one of the cultural anxieties underlying American horror films is that "in the age of reason, reason replaces superstition and irrationality, initiating an interrogation of traditional spiritual and religious beliefs. The horror genre marks a return of that which the age of reason represses or questions—the supernatural, the irrational, and the monstrous."
You get the sense that Derrickson is hyperaware of these cultural tensions and anxieties: the climactic scene is (I don't think it's really a spoiler to say) an exorcism in the middle of an NYPD police interrogation room.
Some of the defining images in the film are shots of Bana, with a disturbed look on his face, shining a flashlight in the direction of some oddity. And one of the defining recurrences is when Sarchie has some supernatural evil flash before his eyes in the midst of investigation. He looks to Butler or Mendoza or anybody for confirmation of what he's seen. The moviegoer is led to investigate along with Sarchie. We think we saw it too, if we can believe our eyes. We're invited to participate—to avail ourselves—in this drama of perception.
All of this sounds serious—and it is—but I don't want to give the wrong expectations: Deliver Us from Evil is also, for all its scares and drama, a buddy cop action comedy, released on the fourth of July with good reason. This will put off some moviegoers who want a film that I've described as "a drama of perception" to have more long-takes and pauses and reflection. I prefer to spend long stretches with Ellison Oswalt in his home office for this reason, but I'm also glad to receive this film for what it is, and what it is—is an intentionally blunt, mainstream genre mixer which goes for subtlety not in its narrative or dialogue but in its more formal filmmaking choices (more on that below).
My one disappointment with the mostly surface-level narrative is that I was unable to become invested in the domestic drama between Sarchie and his wife. I like what Munn is going for in these scenes—graciously available to her husband when he's availed himself to some heavy darkness with the effect of distancing himself from his family.
But my expectations were set fairly high after Sinister, Derrickson's last film, which I found quite affecting in the way it captured the relationship between primary and secondary evil by locating it in the relationship between modern horror and the American family. There's not enough time spent on their relationship and in their home, so most of the scenes between Bana and Munn fall flat. And it's especially disappointing because it connects so well to the themes of availability and influence.
Scenes featuring Bana and McHale work well because they have a noticeable chemistry fit for bantering, and their limited time together never really involves a narrative situation requiring gravitas. I also detect Derrickson cleverly inserting his good comedian buddy McHale in some wink-wink conventional genre situations. We know that Sarchie has to get separated from his partner at some point, so it's smart to get a self-aware chuckle out of having McHale ham it up when he's possessed by a trope.
But even more enjoyable are the scenes focused on the relationship between Sarchie and Mendoza, mostly because Édgar Ramirez knows how to be compelling no matter how much time he's given. He gives the heady, necessarily too-brief conversations he has with Sarchie about faith and evil all the weight that three hour seminary dorm room conversations seem to drain from them. This is important because Mendoza, a priest with his own sins and struggles, is more memorable for his love for the suffering possessed than any jump-scare or grotesquerie the film has to offer. And that's a good thing.
In short, the Mendoza character calmly precipitates the main action of this film: portal movements to and from "the other side."
Miriam Bale is right: the excellence of this film is primarily in its sound design. Derrickson and celebrated sound designer Paul N.J. Ottosson expertly define the dark visual spaces we can't see by orienting us to what we should be afraid of. But the sound in this film is especially enthralling in the way that it synchs the moviegoer with the sounds of possession and exorcism. The thrill of the climactic scene is not so much in how noisy it is, but in how subtly it drains you with carefully crafted surround sound.
There's a few moments when I felt as if I was being identified with the possessed, caught in the middle of the battle of influences between Mendoza's prayerful rite of exorcism and demonic babble. I hope moviegoers can sense how this film's sound design invokes viewer presences in a way that puts to shame the 3D horror we've seen.
Much of this film is about how we avail ourselves to influences and the power they inevitably hold over us—especially influences from the other side. Derrickson goes for bluntness here by marking the soundtrack with three originals from (and one cover of) The Doors. Knowing that Jim Morrison could break in at any moment is a clever entertainment, tying together the film's themes but also complementing its tonal range.
If Morrison and the sound design are appropriately invasive, then it makes sense that the manipulation of the screen space would at times feel like one of those drug-induced montages from Breaking Bad—imposing an intensely convulsive quality that, in addition to the sound design, serves to shake up the moviegoer. In the film's visual and aural grammar, it puts the moviegoer under attack from Satan, too.
This attack is not without a significant war of words, though. Another compelling formal quality of this film is the texture of its language. While the dialogue is sometimes hokey, the exchanges between Mendoza and the central, possessed antagonist Santino (with a stunningly invested performance by Sean Harris) are mesmerizing. The possessed use the language of deception to influence others—sometimes inhabiting manipulative voices and dialects.
Mendoza draws power from the language of prayer, from reciting the rite of exorcism, and most essentially, from the name of Christ. In the film's drama of perception and availability, much of it plays out on the basis of whose voice we will listen to. In the climactic scene, Santino's spewing nonsense and Mendoza's Latin punctuate the film's dueling spiritual influences.
In all of these ways, there's an artful method to Derrickson's bluntness, and it recalls Flannery O'Connor's quote about shouting at the hard of hearing and drawing startling figures for the near-blind. If Americans have lost their sense of evil, Derrickson's film seems to restore us to our senses with force.
In American Cinema / American Culture, Belton also notes,
The genres of horror and science fiction function to manage our anxiety about being human, the potentially porous borders between the human and the nonhuman, and the threat and attraction of the posthuman. As human existence becomes increasingly tenuous in the twenty-first century world of global warming, . . . AIDS (and other pandemics), terrorism, ethnic cleansing, hunger, poverty, and financial insecurity, we rely more and more on these genres to affirm the centrality of the human, to warn us of the dangers to humanity's survival.
Again, Belton goes nicely with Delbanco, who talks about contemporary anxiety in the face of inhuman impositions on humanity in a world in which we don't believe there is a war beneath the war. Such a world would be a hopelessly hellish place. But if the Christians are right then not only does Satan play a role in our terrors, but the bloodied Christ is a compelling image in this genre and in the world we inhabit. A God who is also human and who not only suffers for us but with us is the only compelling balm I know for all of us who've been chapped by the problem of evil.
The bloodied God-man—the living exemplar of the "problem of good," as Mendoza puts it—is the most compelling humanism, among all humanist attempts to resist the encroachments of all manner of post- and non-humanisms. In a film with the persistent suggestion that both evil and sacrificing for the good of others drains us, the sacrifice gains a strange, hopeful significance when underscored by a suffering God-man. One of these self-emptying actions may not, in the end, destroy us.
So to understand Derrickson's foray into the devil's territory is to understand that he doesn't want us to revel in darkness; he wants us to face our fears. And if we avail ourselves to a powerful enough influence, we just might dispossess ourselves of our very worst anxieties.
Deliver Us from Evil is rated R for persistent horror, grotesque images including dead cats, moderate violence including gun fire and knife fights, disturbing flashes of evil including a dead baby and domestic violence, and quite a few instances of cussing including a few uses of the f-word. All of it is frightening and appropriate to the film's narrative/setting. For mature adults.