A jump scare isn’t just a jump scare in the films of Scott Derrickson, which isn’t to say this wannabe master of horror has entirely perfected the art of sudden dread. In one intensely jolting scene from his new film, Deliver Us from Evil, an Iraq war veteran suddenly lunges at New York City police officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) before scurrying away like some wild animal on his hands and knees, throwing himself through a second-floor window and disappearing into the dead of night. The man’s rage and degradation are so freakishly visceral, so seemingly irrevocably pollutant, that they cast away all doubt about whether or not this will be just another tall tale about the veracity of possession by malevolent spirits. But if the film, like Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose before it, isn’t some didactic shouting match between religious and secularist forces, it shouts in other ways—mostly as an unrefined litany of mansplaining which borrows more than a few notes from the granddaddy of all exorcism movies.
Just as the war vet’s dramatic exit is seemingly in homage to Jason Miller’s famous nosedive at the end of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Deliver Us from Evil begins by locating the source of its titular evil in the ancient, subterranean bowels of Iraq. The film’s nearly incoherent prologue, set in 2010, has American troops descending upon their faceless enemy in a landscape that suggests a curious gene splice of desert and forest, snakes and bats and hyenas wreaking noisy havoc all about as a sudden explosion reveals the entrance to a catacomb. Though there’s no sense of the enemy having retreated inside, the Americans enter nonetheless, and amid the relics (skulls, hieroglyphics) of a past that has been rendered using the cheapest of B-movie brushes (the walls of the tomb seem as sturdy as Rice Krispies Treats), an evil force possesses the men, warping their camouflaged visages into spitting images of the mighty Pazuzu and sending them back to New York City as parkour-ing Banksy impersonators.
The story, at once overstuffed and undernourished, hits a raw nerve early when Sarchie explains to his wife, Jen (Olivia Munn), the horrors he’s witnessed on the job in one week’s time, from finding a dead baby in a dumpster to arresting a woman at the Bronx Zoo for nearly feeding her toddler to the lions. Sarchie’s emotional purge, prefaced with a half-hearted apology for having screamed at his six-year-old daughter for running around excitedly during the throes of a sugar rush, is made haunting by the customarily nuanced Bana, who appears to understand his character’s turmoil as a form of PTSD. But this peek at a man’s repression remains just that, and rather than parallel his crisis of consciousness with whatever battlefield traumas may afflict the war vets, all dishonorably discharged from the army, the filmmakers reduce the men to mere litmus tests on Sarchie’s path toward obligatory spiritual reckoning. As in Sinister, evil spreads like a pestilence throughout the film, though there’s hardly an impression of it as moral rot.
As Derrickson withholds a more ardent, committed focus on the agony that plagues Sarchie over a previous case, the evildoing that comes to roost inside the man’s home, specifically his daughter’s bedroom, never feels purposefully and emotionally fraught. Instead, Sarchie’s pain is needlessly regarded as a reveal, the key toward explaining why he sees and hears strange things throughout his sleuthing, from children’s laughter to the Doors’ “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” and the dislocation between what happens to Sarchie and how it’s connected to his past is so muddled that Deliver Us from Evil largely passes by as a series of seemingly random, if frequently creepy, shocks to the audience’s system. Even the man’s final epiphany plays second fiddle to an exorcism-as-tectonic-plate-shifting-acid-trip that a Jesuit priest (a dull Édgar Ramírez) stages at a police station and explains to Sarchie as if it were a 12-step program. In the end, it’s all sound and fury in service of scaring Jesus back into Bana’s fallen Catholic, an agenda that might have been truly unnerving had it been delivered unto us with less of a shit-eating grin.