When is it acceptable for a movie about demonic possession to not be that scary? As with any film, the answer is always: when the story is interesting enough to make us not care about jumping out of seats or covering our eyes every three minutes. The latest from director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, SINISTER, and the recently announced Marvel film DR. STRANGE) is based on the book by former New York City officer Ralph Sarchie (played here by Eric Bana), who inadvertently ended up at the center of an investigation involving supernatural elements, or so he believes.
I have no idea how true-to-life the story presented in DELIVER US FROM EVIL actually is, but I believe Derrickson wants his film to feel authentic, both as a police procedural and a tale of possession and exorcism as a religious ritual. The story involves a group of three military buddies who served in Iraq just a few years ago and stumbled upon a hidden, buried temple that seemed to open all three up to possession. When they returned home (dishonorably discharged), they began acting increasingly strange and dangerous to the point where they began hurting or threatening to hurt those around them.
Sarchie and his comic-relief partner, Butler (Joel McHale), take a domestic disturbance call that leads them down a dark and sometimes scary path that intersects with that of a priest, Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez). Soon, Mendoza and Sarchie are discussing the very real possibilities that evil forces are a work, including ones that threaten to harm Sarchie’s wife (Olivia Munn) and young daughter.
Derrickson (who adapted the book with Paul Harris Boardman) is a filmmaker who knows how to generate tension, suspense and the occasional scream, but with DELIVER US FROM EVIL, the emphasis is on tension. Sure, there are a few truly scary sequences, including a couple involving Sarchie’s daughter and her creepy toy collection, but the director is more interested in making us care about the safety of the good people of this film, not all of whom survive.
Derrickson has also proven that he knows how to cast his films brilliantly, and as good as Bana and Ramírez are in this film, the name you’ll hopefully remember after watch this movie is Sean Harris, who plays the primary possessed military man Santino. Harris has had memorable roles in films like the RED RIDING trilogy, HARRY BROWN, and PROMETHEUS, as well as the series “The Borgias,” but there’s an extended interrogation sequence in DELIVER US FROM EVIL that is one of the most intense, brain-scrambling, devastating bits of evil on display that I’ve seen in quite some time. And it pretty much works because Harris sells it as if it’s the last piece of acting he’ll ever do (it’s not; the guy already has his next three films already in the can, including Michael Fassbender’s MACBETH). This film is worth checking out for Harris’ work alone.
There are some moments in DELIVER US FROM EVIL that brush right up against moments from THE EXORCIST, and in a way, that seems inevitable in a story that splits its time between police work and religious ritual. It’s good to see Bana back in form, playing a character that isn’t trying to be larger than life or iconic. He’s meant to be an above-average cop, who seems to have a gift for sensing when a case is going to be particularly nasty (turns out, it’s more than just instincts), and he plays a man who has abandoned his faith and must rediscover it in order to save more people from dying or otherwise suffering. Those are the plot elements and acting highlights that sold me on this film.
Despite the fact that it seems to be raining in every damn frame of this film, DELIVER US FROM EVIL is a solidly made work that balances its creepiest moments with gritty New York-underbelly hyper-realism to create something not quite unique, but far from derivative. Hey, at the very least, it’s better than RIPD.