This article contains The Exorcist: Believer spoilers.
For nearly 20 years, author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty hated the ending of The Exorcist (1973) so much that he could barely speak with its director, William Friedkin. This would have likely struck many as odd considering the film faithfully adapted Blatty’s novel of the same name, and Blatty’s contribution to the work as screenwriter won him an Oscar. But the theatrical ending of that film was made so downbeat by its director—with Father Dyer (William O’Malley) looking at the staircase which stole the life of his best friend Father Karras (Jason Miller)—that many interpreted it as Dyer and the film were thinking none of this was worth it. For years afterward, Blatty was horrified when he encountered moviegoers who told him the Devil won.
Eventually, the director and screenwriter reconciled when the more upbeat and life-affirming final scene was restored in an extended version of The Exorcist. Still, that debate over the original film’s ending should make one wonder what Blatty would think if he saw the finale of The Exorcist: Believer… a film which concludes with a little girl named Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) hearing a demon mockingly echo her father’s words as it says, “I choose you Katherine,” and then slowly drags her down into the pits of Hell.
This time it’s open for debate whether the Devil really did win.
To be fair, the film’s director and co-writer, David Gordon Green, does not entirely see it that way. The sequence in question is intended to disturb and unsettle, as well as initially confound the audience. Indeed, the climax pivots on saving the lives and souls of two young girls, Katherine and Angela (Lidya Jewett), after they’ve been possessed by the same demon. And in an unsettling moment, the evil entity taunts their parents, Angela’s single father Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Katherine’s devout Born Again Christian parents, Miranda and Tony (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz).
In synchronicity, the demon speaks through both girls as it offers the parents a choice: one girl lives, and one girl dies. They get to choose which. It’s an impossibly evil situation that by design echoes the choice Victor faced at the beginning of the movie where his pregnant wife was injured during a Haitian earthquake. Back then, he was told he could save the life of his bride or his unborn daughter by a doctor. But as the demon mocks, “God played a trick on you.” Victor chose his wife, and Angela was still the only one who survived.
Now the moment comes again, and if the devils view Victor’s sorrow as a “trick,” it probably should’ve given everyone in the room pause. Nonetheless, uber-evangelical Tony turns out to have the weakest will and in a moment of despair announces, “I choose you Katherine.” But if you think God plays tricks, why would you trust the envoy of Satan?
“We explored so many different versions of this in the script form and even in production,” Green tells Den of Geek. “And then the idea of a choice became substantial. Which one was it going to be? And making a deal with the Devil became something that I found profound, and wanted to explore.”
Tony makes a cowardly, Faustian bargain to save the life of his child. Instead Angela returns from the seeming jaws of death, healed and renewed. Meanwhile Tony and Miranda’s own child fades away before their eyes, even as in a metaphysical realm (which resembles the watery canal where Katherine and Angela played with Wiccan rituals), little Katherine hears and sees the demon’s face before many monstrous hands gather round her head and pull her beneath the water—and down into the bowels of eternal torment.
For Green, this sequence was about balancing mixed emotions for the audience: “It didn’t feel honest to have such a clear cut happy ending where all is good, and it’s a sunshiny day. I wanted to infuse warmth and success, but also frustration and loss. I wanted the good guys to win, but the bad guys to get a few marks on the board, and make the audience have something that they walk away feeling. If that’s controversy, satisfaction, frustration, these are things that, as a filmmaker, I like. Those are the provocative qualities of conversation.”
Perhaps, and yet in our own analysis of the film, we would suggest The Exorcist: Believer actually did what Blatty feared Friedkin’s more ambiguous tone left open in the original film: the Devil wins, and a little girl burns.
To be certain, there is a happy denouement where the sun is shining bright and the voiceover by the film’s strongest religious center, the failed-nun-turned-nurse, Ann (Ann Dowd), narrates what is essentially the moral of Blatty’s original novel: the devil tries to make you lose faith by smearing this world in ugliness and despair. There’s even a hint that Miranda will forgive Tony for consigning their daughter to hellfire forever.
However, in some ways this feels like the bandaid left on top of the film. Despite the best intentions of an ecumenical array of exorcists in the movie’s third act, they fail miserably. They never once seem to weaken the demon’s spell on the girls, and in fact lose one of their own in the process. The demon then offers a poisoned bargain, and one of the would-be heroes accepts—resulting in a child being dragged to perdition. It’s that exact horrific idea which makes all the sacrifice and horror of the original Exorcist’s ending worthwhile. Father Karras and Merrin (Max von Sydow) die, but little Regan (Linda Blair) lives. She is spared damnation.
The Exorcist: Believer’s edit even seems to struggle with this reversal since all the final round of trailers and TV spots revolve around the girls begging their parents, “I don’t want to go to Hell,” but that line is tellingly left out of the final film.
With that said, The Exorcist: Believer ending does touch on that classic movie’s finale in another subplot: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is reunited with her adult daughter Regan (Blair), which occurs after the film reveals the two have not seen each other in 30 or 40 years… although at the reunion, Chris herself is shockingly mangled by the demon, with her eyes having been gouged out by the possessed Katherine earlier in the movie.
Says Green, “When I was pitching this to Ellen in outline form, and I’m talking through the story, and I tell her about the eye-gouge, she’s like, ‘David, you’re not going to kill Chris are you?’ So she knows I’m a lighthearted sicko. But to me… I again wanted the good guys to win but the bad guys to get a few marks. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m working backwards a little bit. I want this reunion with Regan, I want the connection between mother and daughter, that fracture, to be healed, but I want her to be blind.’”
He thus back-plotted Chris’ story so that, like Oedipus Rex, she is blinded. Even so, her fate is still meant to be bittersweet since we get a reunion that no other Exorcist sequel has offered in 50 years. And shooting it on the day was something truly special.
“They hadn’t seen each other in many years,” Green says of Burstyn and Blair. “We didn’t reintroduce them; we kept them apart until we were rolling film. We blindfolded Ellen, and then Linda comes in, and we do one take. It’s incredible, everybody’s in tears. Ninety-five percent of the crew didn’t know what was about to happen… We can be cynical and think that we’re not moved, but when we’re part of this cinematic history in a moment that we get to live and breathe in a room with, it’s unbelievable.”
Green reveals he even did a second take “just for the hell of it,” but he never looked at it in the editing bay. Capturing that emotion between Burstyn and Blair for real was the true grace found in The Exorcist: Believer’s ending.
The Exorcist: Believer is in theaters now.