Perhaps not, but you’re fascinating and worthy of the Exorcist legacy.
As I began writing this article I learned of the death of William Peter Blatty, who described this film as “a handsome, classy, elegant piece of work.” I would say it is in keeping with what Blatty attempted in his novel and in Exorcist III, though I imagine he may have had issues with the anti-colonialism message of the movie.
I’ll save the rehash of the Exorcist prequel fiasco, which produced the execrable Exorcist: The Beginning (directed by Renny Harlin) and Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist, which was Paul Schrader’s original vision.
The story in Dominion, though radically different, shares the same basic premise as Beginning. Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) was forced to participate in a Nazi atrocity in Holland. Years later he turns up in a remote area of British-occupied Kenya to work on an archaeological excavation of a mysterious and sinister Christian church. Amidst colonial racial tension it becomes clear that something is happening to Cheche, a young crippled villager, and soon, Merrin is forced to confront both his lack of faith and the demon (presumably) that he’ll encounter in Washington D.C. decades later.
The story doesn’t play out as you might expect. Schrader eschewed many of the tropes and stereotypes that began with The Exorcist. The film is quiet and slow and lacks a great deal of standard horror shock and gore, save for a few moments. Don’t look for comfortable continuity and mythology building, either.
The vision for the possessing demon is fascinating and evokes nothing of Linda Blair’s cinematic torments. Cheche, the possessed, transforms the opposite of Regan – from a deformed and clubfooted boy into a fascinatingly beatific being, one that offers ‘salvation.’
Schrader and his collaborators were going for something meaningful, attempting insight into the question of why evil exists. As Roger Ebert himself out it, “Schrader gives us a frightening vision of a good priest who fears that goodness may not be enough.” The demon in Cheche tempts Merrin and other characters in the film with a facile, corrupt fix to the traumas they faced in Nazi occupied Europe, while exacerbating the tension and horror of British East Africa.
This latter point is what makes the film fascinating to me. We connect to the horror of the Holocaust, but do we connect to the horror of colonialism? In the film we witness the mental breakdown of several characters, including Major Granville (Julian Wadham) who orders killings of villagers to enforce order, and Jomo (Israel Aduramo) who wants to stop the ‘Christian evil’ from taking hold of the town. Atrocities and deaths parallel what Merrin and Rachel (Clara Bellar as a doctor and Holocaust survivor tending to Cheche) went through.
It’s one scene that I find the most fascinating: a tense and eerie monologue from Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), a naive and well meaning priest, and the shocking response. Overwhelmed by the horror around him, Fr. Francis is only too happy to reduce the ill Cheche as an ‘innocent’ and proof of God’s mercy, beauty, goodness, what have you. What is that the demon throws back at him? What is his own hidden guilt (sua culpa)? Did Francis really think a baptism was the magic pill that would make it all better for him and for the village? (For as long as YouTube permits, view it here at minute 52)
The film’s problems amount to some bad FX and a murky, muddled exorcism and denouement. Don’t let it stop you from taking in the film.