Do you suppose Eric Bana is the greatest movie actor of his generation?
Even film fans who have forgotten his past performances (in movies like “Munich,” “Hanna,” “Troy,” “Lucky You,” “Time Traveler’s Wife,” “Funny People,” “Star Trek,” and “The Other Boleyn Girl”) will immediately recognize the subtle excellence of his turn in the new exorcism movie “Deliver Us From Evil.” The movie is scary, stylish, intense, and high-powered, and Bana’s performance is its most fundamental asset.
Made by horror movie director Scott Derrickson, “Deliver Us From Evil” is a film version of New York City policeman Ralph Sarchie’s account of a series of related occurrences he investigated while working in The Bronx.
But the story begins in Iraq in 2010 when three American soldiers, one a video cameraman, explored a man-made cave and encountered something really creepy which seems to have changed one of them profoundly.
This soldier, Santino, read the Latin message on the wall. Later this message will be written (and painted over) on walls wherever Santino and his partner in a painting company, another of the Iraq explorers, work. The film’s reliance on the power of the written word, even when it is not understood, reminds us of Don Delillo’s great novel The Names.
Nor is that the only piece of literary resonance in the movie. In fact, it may be that the film tries to re-introduce too many seemingly unrelated references as it goes. Included are sets of background noises from a crime scene, when Sarchie (Bana) sees a wanted child molester who he later beats to death. We get “Pop Goes the Weasel” and songs from the Doors as audio references. Birds real and toy figure.
And the movie plays with its lighting throughout, from the black out in the Iraqi tomb through emergency lighting in the Bronx Zoo, failed flashlights in litter-filled apartments, and on to the glaring but insufficiently spread lighting of the final scenes. I don’t know what to make of the recurrent instances of animals and fish threatening and in at least once instance attacking.
Most of the attacking, though, is done by the apparently mad Santino or by Jimmy, the photographer who was the third man in that foreign tomb. Sgt. Sarchie and his partner don’t at first know what connects the incidents Santino provokes.
The first is a case of domestic abuse, with Jimmy’s wife being the victim. Then there is the business at the Zoo, with an apparently mad woman throwing her two-year-old child into a moat protecting the lion enclosure. Later a review of security video will show how the hooded Santino figured in this occurrence.
Then there is the family that calls the police because there is something wrong in their basement. Sarchie investigates, finds the still-swelling corpse of the second painter, and sees a photo which associates the three men—Santino, his now dead partner, and the violent videographer.
The madwoman has a defender, a roving priest named Mendoza (played by Edgar Ramirez). Mendoza seems to understand how some evil power could be driving the events here, and he is sympathetic to Sarchie, who feels terribly guilty about having killed the serial child killer.
The priest and the cop collaborate. As they close in on Santino and Jimmy, things at the policeman’s home take a spooky turn. Sarchie’s eight-year-old daughter gets a toy owl which sits on a shelf in her room. Until it rolls out, apparently on its own. And the door there slams shut.
Derrickson has a decent sense of pace, and if the movie lacks the pressure-relieving humor we associate with good horror films, that is because exorcism movies are a different sort of entertainment. Here the issue is spiritual peril, and the events are emblematic rather than cathartic. One doesn’t come out of “Deliver Us From Evil” feeling relieved so much as warned.
It is a testament to Bana’s characterization that he can be both tough enough to face down lions and demons and, at the same time, human enough to be emotionally immobilized by knowledge of his own sins. The actor is the steel in the very effective “Deliver Us From Evil.” The steely hero, and the supplicant.