Hell Is Other People
Paul Schrader's Exorcist prequel, Mark Wexler's Haskell memoir, plus a new reader contest
The stupefyingly named Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (Warner Bros.), directed by Paul Schrader, is finally—probably briefly—in theaters and deserves to be. It's a good, thoughtful horror picture—and thiiis close to being a very good one. As Scott Foundas reported in an excellent L.A. Weekly piece, the production company, Morgan Creek, shelved Schrader's film when it discovered, to its horror, that it was low on horror—horror in this context being synonymous with "rich in splatter, vomit, and spinning heads." The right man for a splatter/vomit/spinning heads sort of film was Renny Harlin, who did an awful quickie version—called Exorcist: The Beginning—with the same lead actor, Stellan Skarsgard, as Father Merrin. It died so fast it made Morgan Creek executives' heads spin.
So, now we see what Morgan Creek threw up its corporate hands over. After a disturbing prologue in which Father Merrin becomes implicated—in a Sophie's Choice kind of way—in a Nazi atrocity, Dominion shifts to a dig in East Africa two years after the war. Now an archeologist, Merrin is officially neither in nor out of the church, but he dresses in street clothes and talks openly—with the young Father Francis (Gabriel Mann)—about the ineffectuality, if not the absence, of God. That's when he and his team uncover something startling: an ancient church built over a temple, the centerpiece of which is an immense statue of a horned demon. It isn't long before the temple begins to emit a lot of really, really bad vibes. The cattle eat the hyenas, babies are born covered with maggots, a badly deformed African boy (the uncanny Billy Crawford) begins to heal mysteriously, and the tension between the colonial British army and the native Africans threatens to send them all to hell.
The script, credited to the novelist Caleb Carr and William Wisher Jr., has a vastly different take on evil than the original William Peter Blatty novel (and the 1973 William Friedkin film). The Exorcist was set in a godless, countercultural society, in a broken home, with a foul-mouthed Hollywood-actress mother: Of course a young girl on the brink of puberty would be ripe for demonic possession. In Dominion, on the other hand, the evil is subtly linked with social inequality—with colonialism and its even more brutal big brother, fascism. The devil is in the violence done to the Africans, and in the way they retaliate—convinced that Christianity and not its opposite has polluted their souls.
Schrader and his screenwriters handle that central metaphor gracefully, and the film looks wonderful, with the great Vittorio Storaro's camera turning the arid landscape into a place where only things rank may bloom. Schrader is a fairly detached director, though, and with pacing this leisurely a director needs to be more invested—to make it seem as if the evil is seeping into the very celluloid. The acting is variable. Clara Bellar is very poorly directed as a doctor trying, like Merrin, to forget a tragic past. And Skarsgard is ... well, I can't point to anything he does wrong, but he's not an actor who can physicalize the battle for his soul. He's a little logy. When he recovers his faith, the only thing that changes is his clothing.
If I'd been running Morgan Creek, I'd have put another hundred grand into the climax: upped the gross-out stuff, added more sound effects, given the fans what they want—not to pander but to make the final exorcism more cathartic. (It's a bit of a fizzle.) Maybe I'd have added a verse or two of "Tubular Bells" for old times' sake. But I wouldn't have thrown in the towel, let alone passed it to Renny Harlin—the devil. That Harlin's movie bombed so resoundingly could be taken as proof of the existence of God.
Mark Wexler is the son of Haskell Wexler, cinematographer, director, lefty—and also, apparently, absent dad. At some point, Mark decided to make a documentary about his famous father: Maybe, just maybe, Wexler Sr. might open up to Wexler Jr. if he has a camera stuck in his face. Maybe, just maybe, Wexler Jr. could get a good documentary and a relationship with his dad.
But in Tell Them Who You Are (ThinkFilm, Inc.), the old man proves to be the most quarrelsome subject imaginable. He doesn't think the film is a good idea: He won't even sign a release until he sees it cut together. He doesn't like a camera in his face, either. Halfway through, he whips out his own and points it at his son. It's a pretty good metaphor—not for their relationship, necessarily, but for this runaway genre of confessional filmmaking. For centuries, people have written novels about their horrible moms and dads. Welcome to a new world of memoir/documentaries: "Look at the camera, dad! Look at the camera, mom! Tell me why you beat me/hated me/ignored me/abandoned me/didn't give me enough material for a documentary!"
Mark interviews people who loomed large in his dad's life, among them Jane Fonda, who can really sympathize: She had an unloving father, too. (Now we know that Fonda was working on her own memoir at the time.) Only one scene pushes the boundaries: Mark films his father weeping and hugging his mother, whom the old man abandoned for a younger woman and who is now in a home for Alzheimer's patients. It's extremely moving, but it feels like an invasion, even if it leads to a scene in which father and son—both documentarians—discuss the ethics of it.
Tell Them Who You Are is fascinating for the issues—ethical, aesthetic, psychoanalytic—it raises. But it doesn't fully come together. Maybe the conceit is so rich that it would need a more self-lacerating artist to do it justice: Albert Brooks, say, making a cross between his riotous faux-documentary Real Life and his thinly fictionalized Mother. That could dynamite this whole genre before it makes privacy seems as antiquated as vinyl LPs and not having a cell phone.
In my review of Star Wars: ROTS, I ventured that the mere sight of Samuel L. Jackson hanging with Yoda was the biggest visual disconnect in the history of cinema. Reader Larry J. Rothstein countered with a fat, wattled Roger Moore bedding Grace Jones in his last Bond picture, A View to a Kill. I smelled a Slatecontest.