Scott Derrickson is a frustrating filmmaker. Since his 2005 breakthrough with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he’s had a string of commercial successes, some of which were even good movies. There was his terrible remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, his excellent horror film Sinister and his addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, which, like most Marvel movies, was good, but not particularly so.
On paper, there are a lot of directors like Scott Derrickson: variably good, but consistently profitable, making films that millions of people see, but almost none of those people know their name. Horror and comedy are full of these directors. Sure, tens of millions of people saw Annabelle: Creation and Central Intelligence, but who amongst us can really say we know who made them? Usually, I’m dimly aware of these financially-successful mid-tier directors and don’t super care about them. But I make an exception for Scott Derrickson. That’s partly because his best films are sincerely great, but mostly it’s because he’s one of the few successful and influential Christian directors working in mainstream cinema.
Christian cinema is in something of a crisis at present. The majority of films dealing overtly with Christianity nowadays are products of the so-called “Christian film industry”, which makes crappy films targeted primarily at Christian conservatives in the United States. They manage to be both terribly made as films and worthless as Christian art. They’re insular, self-referential and masturbatory, just regurgitating their audience’s beliefs back at them with as little nuance as possible, literally preaching to the choir. It’s a sad state of affairs, and not just for Christians. As Christine Emba recently pointed out in the Washington Post, “the Bible is a skeleton key that unlocks hundreds of years of culture”. Christianity has been and remains such a consequential force in human history that its declining position in public discourse has made that discourse shallower and less intelligible. Art, especially popular art, is one of the most important ways we understand and relate to each other as people. When “I’m trapped in this skull prison and you are trapped in yours”, art affords us a glimpse into the hearts and minds of people we otherwise may not understand, and allows us to take that understanding with us into the world. When popular culture so rarely looks inside the skull prisons of people who profess the world’s largest religion, it’s no great shock that the few Christian films that manage to slip through the cracks – Martin Scorsese’s Silence and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, most recently – are so often misunderstood by critics.
Scott Derrickson is a frustrating filmmaker because at his best he’s an exemplary Christian director whose work directly addresses the place of Christianity in these times. But at his worst, he’s a mess.
Though not his first film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose was Derrickson’s big break, and remains his best cinematic treatment of religious themes. Based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who died after undergoing ten months of exorcism, Emily Rose is only partially a horror film. The exorcism itself is portrayed in flashback, while the main story is the trial for negligent homicide of Father Richard Moore, the priest who performed it.
First and foremost, it’s just a well-made, thoughtful film. The cast is excellent, especially Jennifer Carpenter, who probably should have received an Oscar nomination for playing Emily. Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman made lots of clever decisions with the screenplay, like having Father Moore be represented by an agnostic and prosecuted by a devout Christian. There’s a clear but understated difference in visual style between the flashbacks that present Emily’s problems as spiritual (dramatic, gothic) and medical (grim, realistic). All of this makes Emily Rose a good film, but what elevates it to a great one is how it raises important, uncomfortable questions and refuses to offer easy answers.
It’s an inconvenient truth that religious belief is in tension with secular modernity. Faith in the tenets of a religion requires you to not just believe in things beyond this world but be motivated by them. It means you take at least some of the cues for how you behave from something outside the common frame of reference in which our society operates. That creates a major difficulty for modern secular societies: how to judge religiously-motivated action. While there are lots of hot-button examples – gay wedding cakes, Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions, etc – the problem is both more mundane and pervasive. Elizabeth Bruenig explained it well in a speech at the Yale Political Union:
“The tendency of liberal societies to bifurcate religion and politics into two separate spheres — one private, one public — encourages religious participants in political deliberation to equivocate somewhat about their motives and beliefs, as it’s not really possible in that political context to interrogate them. Yet it should be. As long as the religious are going to participate in governance, it’s going to be better, not worse, to argue out the legitimacy of their claims on their own grounds, rather than accounting for all religiously motivated argumentation as both void and unassailable on the grounds of its privacy.”
Modern secular societies pretty much short-circuit when they’re required to accommodate the fact that people believe in and are motivated by things beyond the material. Emily Rose uses the extreme scenario of an exorcism gone wrong to dramatise the problem. Father Moore is a rational, caring, well-intentioned person who becomes persuaded that Emily is possessed by demons and does what he believes is the only thing that can possibly save her. If he’s right and Emily was possessed, he obviously did the right thing, even if he physically endangered Emily, because her eternal soul was at risk. Otherwise, he’s a murderer. But the court can’t rule on whether demons exist, any more than it can rule whether God exists. The film ultimately leaves the question unsettled with a trial result as morally unsatisfying as it is narratively neat: the jury finds Father Moore guilty, but asks he be sentenced to time served.
Where The Exorcism of Emily Rose uses a mix of genres to provoke difficult and important questions, Derrickson’s second exorcism film, Deliver Us from Evil, is a piece of shit. It somehow manages to be both the opposite of Emily Rose in all the worst ways, and also suck in other ways all of its own. Emily Rose is set somewhere in America – it could be in pretty much any of the continental states, a major city or a small one – at some point between 1970 and 2005. It uses that placelessness and timelessness to tell a story about modernity without being weighed down by any era’s specific social or political issues. Deliver Us from Evil takes on the specificity of New York in 2013, but its New York is more like the last refuge of civilisation in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that every single location in the entire film except the main character’s house is a filthy, decaying, vandalised hellhole that he refers to collectively as “the sewer”, while swearing not to bring “the sewer” home. The demons who possessed Emily don’t have a particular impetus or trigger, while the demon in Deliver Us from Evil is brought back from Iraq by a bunch of veterans, but that heavy political context never comes up again, and mostly just seems to be a way to rip off the start of The Exorcist. Emily Rose is deeply concerned with the suffering of the possessed, whereas Deliver Us from Evil doesn’t acknowledge its villain is a man under the unwilling control of demons at all. Emily Rose melds disparate genres in service of its themes, but Deliver Us from Evil can’t decide whether it wants to be a buddy cop movie or a slasher film from scene to scene. Emily Rose weaves its spiritual themes deftly throughout the whole movie, but Deliver Us from Evil consigns them to intermittent exposition from Edgar Ramirez’s hip, sexy and extraordinarily boring Jesuit priest.
If it was just disappointing in contrast to a great movie, that’d be one thing, but even on its own terms, Deliver Us from Evil sucks. Stylistically, it’s a wet fart, like The Crow without any camp value. Sometimes the actors play like they’re in a crappy action-comedy – Joel McHale, who plays Eric Bana’s partner, seems to think he’s in a Michael Bay movie – and sometimes they act like they’re in a really dark, important film. The worst scenes somehow do both, like when Edgar Ramirez is telling Eric Bana about how the emotional toll of the first exorcism he performed led him to relapse into drug addiction, break his vow of celibacy and conceive a child who was aborted, and both perform the scene as if Edgar Ramirez is telling Eric Bana about the time he passed out at a rager in college, then abruptly switch to serious emotion when Ramirez is trying to persuade Bana to confess his sins in kind. There’s loads of dumb action – the knife fight between the killer and Joel McHale’s character comes to mind – and the soundtrack is pretty much all tonally inappropriate Doors songs.
Worst of all, none of this bullshit is in service of its ostensible themes. Deliver Us from Evil is basically a PSA about how demons are real and should be taken seriously – it’s all Edgar Ramirez’s character talks about – but it has such a ridiculous, over-the-top story that it would be hard to take seriously as pure fiction, let alone as a story “Inspired by the True Accounts of an NYPD Sergeant”. The hip, sexy priest explains that the difference between primary evil (demonic) and secondary evil (human) is that primary evil is random and pointless, while secondary evil is motivated by human flaws. He says that’s why possessed people act like mindless animals, crawling and biting and roaring like beasts, and two of the minor possessed characters do behave like that. But because the film wants a serial killer plot, the possessed villain doesn’t act like that at all – he has an elaborate plan to spread possession like a virus that he carries out methodically, and later kidnaps the main character’s family to coerce him into surrendering to possession. I can hardly believe the same people wrote and directed a film as elegant and quietly beautiful as The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Though, to be honest, Derrickson’s failure to make a good film about how we all need to be more afraid of possession doesn’t feel like a super big loss. Emily Rose uses possession to tell a story about how the institutions of modern society struggled to relate to religion, and it’s a great example of what Christian cinema can be. But even if it had achieved its thematic objectives, Deliver Us from Evil is still, at its core, a film about how demons are bad, which is not something anyone really needs to be convinced of. It’s one of those imaginary problems that seems to keep lots of evangelicals up at night, and even the best possible version of Deliver Us from Evil is more like Left Behind than The Exorcist. The more disappointing failure was his contribution to Marvel’s infinite cash machine, Doctor Strange.
Doctor Strange is certainly a better movie than Deliver Us from Evil, even if it’s just another paint-by-numbers superhero film and most of what ostensibly made it different from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was cosmetic. But it’s probably the Scott Derrickson film that frustrated me most of all because it showed so much potential. Doctor Strange is absolutely packed with Christian ideas that would have been amazing to see explored in one of the most-watched films of 2016. Strange himself evolves into a Christ figure by the end of the movie, sacrificing himself over and over to save humanity from a demonic avatar of death who wants to create hell on earth (it’s the Crucifixion), and yet surviving his own sacrifice to return to the world as its protector (it’s the Resurrection). He is, as far as I can tell, the only hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who is totally against killing and says so, loudly.
Unfortunately, it’s overstuffed to the point that it’s both thematically incoherent and incapable of giving any of its interesting ideas enough attention to develop them fully. For example, the villains are former members of the mystic order that Strange joins and their motivation is to achieve eternal life in communion with a god. On the surface, that might seem like a weird thing for a Christian director to portray as evil, but it makes perfect sense: the villains aren’t evil because they want to live forever, but because they want eternal life for its own sake. Derrickson seems to be making an admittedly niche critique of the evangelical apocalypticism popular in the United States, where many Christians eagerly await the end of the world and even attempt to engineer it politically. He’s been publicly critical of this strain of evangelical Christianity on numerous occasions, and gave this explanation of his stance in an interview way back during the promotion of Emily Rose:
“I’m not a dispensationalist — I don’t believe in the Rapture, I think it’s an unbiblical doctrine, and in North American Christianity, at least, it is the teaching that is the root of much of our subculturalism. It creates a dynamic where we believe that we are on the launching pad, ready to be taken out; the culture doesn’t matter, the world doesn’t matter, the world’s going to burn. I have a different eschatological view of the world, that we are here to bring God’s Kingdom to the world, to make the world a better place. Jesus said at the end of his life, to his disciples, ‘My prayer for you is not that you be taken out of the world, but that you be delivered from the evil one,’ and I feel that Rapture teachings really turn that on its head; we are really waiting to be taken out of the world.”
It’s a stance I agree with and would love to have seen expressed well in a work of popular art as far-reaching and accessible as a Marvel movie. But unless you were already looking for Christian themes in Doctor Strange (and you probably weren’t), it’s doubtful you picked up on Derrickson’s critique, because it’s muddled up with a bunch of other stuff. So much of Strange’s character arc is dedicated to another of Derrickson’s pet themes – the materialist sceptic forced to confront the reality of the supernatural – that he never fully sketches out what should have been Strange’s development from using magic (i.e. religion) out of self-interest, like the bad guys, to using it in service of the greater good. This would have been a great theme to build the central conflict around because it’s both a deeply Christian motif and a larger moral question accessible to a non-Christian audience. Instead, Strange is just suddenly thrust into the battle between good and evil and picks good by default rather than making an active choice to grow.
And then there’s the stuff about “the natural law”, which is never really explained, even though it’s the moral code that good magicians are supposed to adhere to, and Strange’s violation of it at the end of the film leads to the defection of his friend and mentor Mordo. It’s definitely not “natural law” as typically understood in Christianity (i.e. the universal moral law endowed by God), since it doesn’t seem to prohibit using magic to commit wrongdoing. Things that are apparently against the natural law include using magic to extend your lifespan or manipulate time, but it’s not clear why. It’s not just a prohibition on violating the laws of physics, since the good magicians break the laws of physics all the time, and the hardcore science position is the materialism/scepticism that Strange abandons. If magic is at least partially a metaphor for religion in Doctor Strange, I have no idea what “the natural law” is supposed to represent that religion “breaks”. Confused themes and an ill-defined conflict between the hero and villain are pretty common in Marvel movies, but that’s exactly what makes Doctor Strange such a disappointment. It shows so much potential to avoid Marvel’s bad habits but just repeats them.
It’s clear from both his films and interviews that Scott Derrickson wants to use popular film genres to bring Christian ideas and themes to mass audiences. I want that too – it’s one of the things that first attracted me to his work. But as time goes by, it feels more and more like The Exorcism of Emily Rose was lightning in a bottle. His subsequent attempts have been failures and the only great film he’s made since – Sinister – was the only one that completely abandoned any Christian themes in favour of a pure horror experience.
I hope he proves me wrong.