Movie Review: Despite Russell Crowe’s attempts to inject life into “The Pope’s Exorcist,” the movie becomes too tedious and awkwardly paced for its own good. Director Julius Avery adds a few nice touches, but this feels far too much like a VOD release in our current climate.
I initially picked out “Renfield” on opening night this past Thursday because I imagined the crowds would be bigger and the appetite would be stronger for that film given the heavy marketing by Universal Pictures. But in a surprising turn of events, maybe I should’ve sought out “The Pope’s Exorcist” instead because it’s outpacing the former by a significant amount domestically and internationally. Nevertheless, you’re not here to learn about dollar totals for two relatively mediocre (spoilers) genre releases. You want to know why you shouldn’t see Russell Crowe attempt to exorcise demons in the aforementioned “The Pope’s Exorcist.”
This has the sort of schlocky title and premise that I expect from a week’s third most significant release, but it has a giant star at the center of it who’s led blockbusters for two decades at this point. Crowe has the gravitas both on screen and in the industry to carry a film into production if he chooses to. Maybe not a blockbuster in the scale of “Gladiator,” but a fun genre effort with little stakes financially. In fact, it’s already doubled its initial budget and is on pace to do even more business in the following weeks.
He’s also teaming up with seasoned director Julius Avery on this one, and while I haven’t been a huge fanatic of his work in the past, the man has a very neatly cut vision of the world and the hellish places we’ve built up for centuries. “Son of a Gun” was a lean prison procedural that turned Ewan McGregor into a lethal convict able to swindle a deal; it’s not a great film, but it has the infrastructure of one. If anything, it helped Avery get his feet wet with big filmmaking for studios and working with large actors.
And then “Overlord” came and seemingly cemented him into being the industry’s next audacious filmmaker capable of big set pieces and locations. A monster/war hybrid bringing together an eclectic group of rising actors, “Overlord” felt like a visionary announcing himself on the scene and projecting himself forward into the mainstream. Yet, it hasn’t worked out totally for him. Last year’s Sylvester Stallone-led “Samaritan” for Amazon Prime felt like a flop, and I can’t say “The Pope’s Exorcist” feels like a complete return to form.
Perhaps “The Pope’s Exorcist” was a doomed project from the jump because I’m unsure if Julius Avery’s version of this movie matches Russell Crowe’s. Avery works in dreary, angry spaces that expose bleak places in the world. But Crowe, much like his recent performances in “The Nice Guys” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” (NOT an endorsement of that film) is there to cook and have as fun of a time as you can in a film titled “The Pope’s Exorcist.” Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch for a film that has many problems worse than the decisions by the main actor.
Russell Crowe’s character Father Gabriele Amorth is called to exorcise a demon out of a young boy in a momentarily abandoned house. The demon proves to be a bigger match for Amorth, and his chase for answers leads to a bigger interrogation with the Vatican questioning their place in the world. This may seem like a bit of a muddied reconstruction of the movie’s events, but that’s partially because I found it odd and confusing how “The Pope’s Exorcist” chooses to unspool information to the audience.
The movie hinges on demonic terrors in the first half to keep you engaged while it builds the various plotlines of Amorth and Father Esquibel (played by Daniel Zovatto) meeting and developing a plan of action. In the moment, it doesn’t feel like “The Pope’s Exorcist” is building into any substantial in the third act. At times I found myself asking for more mythology and world-building, which is something I rarely do when every movie has to set itself up for a sequel down the line (I’ll add that this movie kinda does that in the last few moments, but it doesn’t necessarily promise one).
There aren’t many scares in “The Pope’s Exorcist” worth writing home about until the very end, when Julius Avery is able to dig into his deep bag of grotesque, outlandish sequences that turn the notch up on gore and allow the movie to follow utilize its R-rating. In doing so, the movie attempts to be a handful of different subgenres of horror, but it doesn’t really get under the surface of any of them. There are a few neat monster sequences, a couple ghoulish outbursts by the demon, and some truly bloody moments, but again, not a lot that hasn’t been done better in other movies – even other Julius Avery movies.
Crowe stands out in “The Pope’s Exorcist,” but he doesn’t elevate it too much higher than mediocre genre fodder. Avery gets a few moments to add his signature tricks. Unfortunately, it sticks too close to convention to feel like something wholly new. After all, like I said before, it’s being released during a competitive slate of movies coming up. “The Pope’s Exorcist” feels like a palette cleanser for the upcoming “Evil Dead Rise,” which will hopefully be gorier, bolder, and more raucous than this one. I can’t say it was bad, but can’t say it was good!