The opening fifteen to twenty minutes of “Deliver Us From Evil” find co-writer and director Scott Derrickson delivering a pretty clear statement of intent. Within that span of time, soldiers in Iraq stumble across an unspeakable horror, a street weary detective finds a dead baby in a dumpster, and not long after, that same cop finds himself in the lion’s den at the zoo, with his gun drawn on two of the approaching big cats. There is nothing particularly subtle about Derrickson’s second time around exorcism genre, following 2005’s “The Exorcism Of Emily Rose,” and that’s part of the problem with this Jerry Bruckheimer produced exercise in horror (surprise, surprise).
Eric Bana, utilizing a wildly inconsistent and over-the-top New Yawk accent, leads the film as Ralph Sarchie, a respected, no nonsense cop who finds himself looking into a weird string of recent crimes. In the far too long opening hour of the film, which plays like “Law & Order: Special Exorcist Unit,” Ralph and his partner Butler (a perfectly irritating Joel McHale), investigate what at first appears to be a series of unconnected incidents (at least to those who have never seen a movie before): the aforementioned dead infant, a domestic assault, another child murder, and a body found in the basement of a creepy house don’t seem to add up to anything… until they do. Basically, there’s some evil juju flying around New York City, but for Ralph, people are just crazy and it’s just been a bad week. And you can tell he’s had a bad week because in one scene, he uncharacteristically yells at his young daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson) and wife Jen (Olivia Munn, in a largely thankless role). The pressure is getting to him.
And so, for about an hour or so, “Deliver Us From Evil” lackadaisically meanders from mostly dull procedural, to semi-involving and admittedly well directed sequences of Ralph and Butler exploring creepy basements and taking their investigation to the permanently raining streets of New York City (seriously you’d think this was London), as the movie tediously puts together the clues that finally allow the most exciting character to enter: Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez). An ex-junkie turned priest, who chain smokes and counts Jack Daniels among his vices, he’s seeing the signs that Ralph refuses to notice or believe—that the crimes committed are part of a bigger picture scenario in which the prime suspect connected to the crimes could be possessed by a spirit from beyond. And if there is anyone who could sell the idea of a renegade, almost hipster priest, who also happens to have exorcism experience too, it’s Ramirez. And while he’s unfortunately the most underutilized part of “Deliver Us From Evil,” he’s also the main reason the horror film goes from tedium to mildly watchable.
Underneath the bland cop drama, blander domestic strife between Ralph and Jen, and the pretty rote plot machinations this kind of genre movie requires, there is a pretty interesting subtext and conversation about the weight of guilt, faith and good versus evil. Anytime Ramirez and Bana are on screen together—which is far too little—the edges of a much better film rise to the surface, one where the ideas you sense that Derrickson wanted to explore are given a cursory airing. An interesting concept is floated that requires Ralph to embrace the Catholic faith from his childhood and confess his sins, in order to not only solve the case, but make himself essentially stronger spiritually for the task at hand. Meanwhile, in Mendoza, we see a priest who is constantly at war with his own salvation. It’s fascinating stuff, and Bana and Ramirez make a great pair, it’s just too bad that it all feels like Bruckheimer came in and told the filmmakers they needed more jump scares. Never the most restrained of producers, Bruckheimer’s blockbuster credentials (“Pirates Of The Caribbean,” “National Treasure”) speak to the intellectual depth he’s willing to go (or not) with his movies.
And so, “Deliver Us From Evil” ultimately leans away from richer character fueled scares and builds instead toward an epic exorcism. It’s a sequence that, aside from the dopey cuts to reaction shots by Dorian Missick, is impressive in its intensity. Ralph and Mendoza find themselves both at physical and emotional risk, with the stakes—which are established fairly predictably—at least involving enough to keep your eyes glued on what happens next.
But the same can’t be said for much of the rest of the film which, when it’s not being a mishmash of head-thuddingly obvious signifiers (Butler has the seven deadly sins tattooed on his back, for example), is content to deliver an undercooked “mystery,” with a lot of the same genre tropes you’ve seen before, right down the makeup of those possessed. It’s ultimately nothing new, but there is a very fine line between indulging in the standard structures of particular genre and hitting them out of the park, or simply serving uninspired scares. And for the most part, “Deliver Us From Evil” lies in the latter direction. And it’s a shame because in Bana and Ramirez, who share a palpable bro-mantic, odd-couple quality, the film finds its most charismatic element… but shoves it aside to deliver a movie that will dully meet the barest of expectations instead of trying to exceed them. And that’s truly scary stuff. [C-]