Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

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Directed by Scott Derrickson
Screenplay by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson

Rated R

Eric Bana as Sergeant Ralph Sarchie
Edgar Ramirez as Father Mendoza
Olivia Munn as Jenn Sarchie
Sean Harris as Santino
Joel McHale as Detective Butler
Chris Coy as Jimmy Tratner
Olivia Horton as Jane

It is always disheartening to see a good actor deliver an ineffective performance. But that is exactly the case in this would-be horror flick, adapted from the 2001 book Beware the Night, by the real Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool. Eric Bana pulls out all the stops to portray an intense and brooking New York City sergeant. He is plagued by personal demons (pun intended), and there is something Sinister (Derrickson directed that 2012 horror flick) happening in NYC.

You know the drill with these movie cops: they are overworked, their spouses complain they are never home, and something from their past has triggered their current state of instability. Sarchie is having a crisis of faith as well, just in case there isn’t enough plot to build his story. His issues are like a laundry list: he lost his Catholic faith early, at age 12, when a burglar attempted to kill his mother. Also, he sadistically murdered a suspected child predator a few years back. This particular plot point is handled as a sloppy afterthought. Sure, who doesn’t want to see a child rapist/killer get their just due? But is it really the job of the police to play judge and jury, and slap a capital punishment sentence on the suspect? The by-the-numbers script is sure to point out Sarchie was convinced of the man’s guilt, no doubt.

I digress. The film opens with three soldiers in Iraq, apparently accosting a demon while on their tour of duty. This leads to events which cause the three men to be dishonorably discharged, and the demon makes it way back to NYC to wreak havoc on the innocent. This storyline seems so shamefully reminiscent of the landmark 1973 film The Exorcist, it’s impossible to take it seriously, though comparisons are inevitable.

When there is a crisis of faith underlying and tormenting a lead character, you know a priest can’t be too far behind. Enter Father Mendoza, a recovering addict (NA, not AA, he points out – he can still drink – otherwise how would these two men’s men ever bond?), is well-played by Edgar Ramirez. This is a mostly thankless role, but Ramirez gives it his all. Father Mendoza gets to perform an exorcism late in the film, and it strains even the loosest sense of credibility. The 41-year-old Exorcist film can still disturb and frighten, due to brilliant acting and keen instincts of director William Friedkin. There are no thrills or scares in this exorcism, but there are laughs: it takes place in an interrogation room in the local police station. For real.

I liked Joel McHale as Sarchie’s wise-cracking partner (some jokes work, some don’t). There are two legitimate scares in the film, and even one that wasn’t given away in the film’s trailer. I noted Ramirez’s solid efforts as well. The special effects are serviceable, if not overly impressive.

Bana could have been decent in the role, provided he had the proper direction. He is a gifted actor (he was superb in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 thriller Munich), but the role just does not suit him. The script is the biggest problem. Neither Derrickson nor Paul Harris Boardman can seem to settle on the tone. Should this be a terrifying horror film, made even more disturbing because it is non-fiction? Or should this film tread the line of horror flick and spiritual drama, pitting the hero against the most malevolent of all villains: the demon or the devil? Or … should the horror angle blend with the spiritual drama, and also take audiences along for the domestic conflict involving Sarchie’s family?

Friedkin’s The Exorcist continues to endure because it is essentially a faith-based mystery. However, the film is so well-made and expertly acted that it does, as ads indicate, tap into our deepest fears. The 2005 thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose was also a suspenseful genre picture, but the audience was allowed to meditate and consider their thoughts, without having all of the details spelled out, point by point.

Deliver Us from Evil even suffers from a generic, TV-movie title. I can see what the filmmakers and actors were trying to accomplish, yet the efforts are not successful. If you are seeking a solid thriller, return to one of the better films of the past and remember why they are so well-regarded.

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