In The Brothers Karamazov, after the atheist Ivan has talked for two full chapters—“Rebellion,” the greatest statement of the problem of evil, and “The Grand Inquisitor”—he gives his Christian brother Alyosha a chance to respond. Here we’ve heard the prosecution speak. What’s the case for God?
And Alyosha leans over and kisses him.
Scott Derrickson’s new, sincere horror film Deliver Us From Evil should have listened to how much the wordless Alyosha was saying. Human arguments can only be as big as the arguers. So much of God is left over: outside, eldritch, Other.
Horror should be the genre which best captures this inexpressibility of God, the wrongness of Him compared to the tidy, familiar, practical mental apparatus by which we make sense of the world. The Exorcist is admirably incomplete: tragic, broken, ferocious in the face of evil but submissive in the face of suffering. It convinces by never trying to convince.
The central mistake of Deliver (which I’m about to spoil pretty thoroughly, so stop here if you don’t want to know how it ends) is foreshadowed from its very first scene, in which Marines in Iraq discover a hidden cave filled with an ominous mix of pictographs and Latin. The scene mixes in “found footage”-style excerpts of the video from a Marine’s helmet-mounted camera. Found-footage horror can be sublime, as in the terrifying Blair Witch Project and the achingly sad Lake Mungo. But unlike those films, too many found-footage flicks use the device as a way to force the characters (or the audience) to trust in the reality of the supernatural. How can you doubt something that’s on video? The spiritual question of meaning is reduced to a practical question of evidence. The central movement of faith, which is trust in a Person not a piece of technology, drops out of the equation.
In Deliver, the nonbelieving character ambushed by the evidence is Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), an NYPD cop of the truncheon-and-swagger school. Bana handles the transition from tough to haunted quite well. He holds on to Sarchie’s arrogance all the way to the film’s climax, even as the man’s eyes become more doubting and fearful, his cheekbones more prominent in his drawn and unshaven face.
Sarchie’s troubles begin when he takes a call about a domestic dispute: His sixth sense, or “radar,” says he should go. The perpetrator turns out to be a Marine (guess where he was deployed) and has something—a tattoo, or maybe not—on his shoulder which looks like clawmarks. From here the horrors begin to mount: a mother who throws her own baby into the lion enclosure at the Bronx Zoo, a suicide by paint thinner, a man who bites off chunks of his own flesh, a giant stuffed owl in Sarchie’s daughter’s bedroom which moves by itself. If you’ve been paying attention to the crucifixes in the set dressing (and other scenery, like the tattoo listing the Seven Deadlies on the back of Sarchie’s partner’s neck) you will know who’s responsible.
At first Sarchie—an altarboy turned atheist whose churchgoing wife is pregnant, all of which is effectively handled if you don’t mind being handled effectively—assumes the violence he’s seeing is the result of mental illness or drugs. He spars with the seedy priest, Fr. Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), who has swapped the rituals of heroin addiction for the rite of exorcism.
Fr. Mendoza is a great creation when he’s being seedy or saddened. (I can’t remember the last time I saw a contemporary American movie where a smoker was a good guy—in fact, Fr. Mendoza’s smoking is used as a code for “one of us,” not a prig, a hard-bitten man of the streets and the people.) He’s caring and careworn, tempted but never cynical.
Unfortunately, he also makes the case for God.
The pool-hall exchange, “I’ve met a lot of priests, and you don’t seem the type”/“I’ve met a lot of cops and you’re exactly the type,” is nice and sharp. But then we settle in for a debate: Sarchie lists the evils that men do and asks, “Where’s God when all that’s happening?”
Fr. Mendoza replies, quickly (too quickly), “In the hearts of people like you.” He argues that there may be a problem of evil, but there’s also “the problem of good”: If life is meaningless, “Why are all the [firefighters] in this bar willing to lay down their lives for complete strangers?”
This is not really Christianity (both of Fr. Mendoza’s responses sway too far toward dividing humanity into heroes and villains, when both his faith and the movie in which he appears offer a more nuanced picture of universal guilt and complicity) and—or, I’d argue, because—it’s glib. And the movie signs on to it. Sarchie confesses his sins and participates in the climactic exorcism, and the film ends with the sunlit baptism of his baby daughter.
It’s possible to make a film about a world in which Christianity is true, where the characters’ glib arguments for Christianity are nonetheless subverted rather than affirmed. It’s possible to craft a story in which “the problem of good” isn’t “Why do some people happen to do good things some of the time?” but rather, for example, “How can we justify our sunlit scenes of happiness, when there’s so much unhealed suffering?” (What happened to those poor possessed people, whose bodies have been lacerated, criminal and medical records irremediably blotched, reputations ruined, and souls traumatized? Don’t expect this movie to tell you.)
Deliver is full of great ideas: the early nighttime chase through the Bronx Zoo; the fact that the possessed people own a business which gets them work inside other people’s homes; the taunting, condescending cop-voice Sarchie can’t help using on a possessed woman even though he’s started to believe that she may be a victim; the little moments where we learn which people trust cops more than priests and which people are the other way around.
And there are a few powerful moments, as well. As with most movies today, Deliver trowels on the music—but that allows it to get a deeply creepy, flesh-crawly moment when a little boy indicates a crucifix and says, “This Jesus—he came down off the wall—and broke.” The movie goes nearly silent for the first time and holds the moment, and the audience shivers. The images of two blasphemous crucifixes are genuinely shocking. The cops’ gallows humor makes sense given their profession, and adds grit.
And while Sarchie’s movement toward repentance and confession is heavy-handed, the content of his confession is terrific: Christian to the point of being almost un-American. What he regrets, the sin which has been eating away at him, is something which the people around him consider heroism.
An especially daring catechism teacher could use the confession scene, and the conversations leading up to it, to spark a good class discussion. But I am not sure that’s what horror movies are for.
Derrickson has something important to say. He just needs to learn not to say it.