With a small, well-chosen cast, a sly script, and slippery, ambivalent characters, The Last Exorcism gives a welcome twist to the demonic-possession movie. A fourth-generation minister, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has grown out of the trembling faith of his forebears. As Exorcism begins, we follow Cotton through a day in the life, shot from a documentary film crew's handheld p.o.v. The filmmakers have come to track Cotton on an exposé mission. The end of a line of exorcists, Cotton has decided to give the game away on the practice. Cotton and crew follow a request for divine intervention to the Sweetzer farm in Ivanwood, Louisiana. When Cotton calls the backcountry "a perfect breeding ground for demons and evil," you can hear the scare quotes around the "demons" and "evil," antique words synonymous with ignorance. But the past isn't past with Sweetzer patriarch Louis (Louis Herthum), concerned about daughter Nell (Ashley Bell), who's been having mysterious blackouts, after which livestock are found slaughtered. Cotton delivers his casting-out-of-demons spiel, then collects his payment. But this doesn't quick-fix Nell, now going through violent sleepwalk seizures and gymnastic contortions. A well-paced tease, the script is a succession of slow approaches to understanding what's happening, with each new understanding revealing a false bottom. The suspense is ideological—is this a world of documentary pragmatism or horror irrationality? Either everything has a textbook explanation in shame and repression—or we must heed the immortal words of the Louvin Brothers and believe that Satan is Real.
Bell plays the girl in trouble.
Opens at Cinebarre and other theaters, Fri., Aug. 27. Rated PG-13. 88 minutes.