For decades, cop dramas have depicted the South Bronx as the devil's playground. Deliver Us From Evil takes that idea all too literally. But then this slow-witted occult thriller takes everything literally, from the Catholic rite of exorcism to Jim Morrison's shamanic posturing.
The movie is derived from a book of the same name by former NYPD Sgt. Ralph Sarchie, who reportedly came to believe that some of the criminals he faced were literally possessed. Wisely, director and co-scripter Scott Derrickson made the on-screen Sarchie (stolidly intense Eric Bana) a skeptic.
The cop is a lapsed Catholic who gave up on God when he was 12, although he does believe in the power of his internal "radar" to locate the most interesting cases. He's also, unsurprisingly, wracked with Catholic guilt. And not just about how he neglects his wife, Jen (Olivia Munn), and 6-year-old daughter, Christina (Lulu Wilson).
Of course, the role of skeptics in movies like this is to be brutally converted to a magical worldview. Just as the job of 6-year-old daughters is to be threatened by the story's archvillain.
That fiend is introduced in a prologue set in Iraq, four years ago. During a battle, three American soldiers stumble upon the entrance to a spooky, ill-lighted subterranean chamber. Naturally, they enter, thus setting the precedent for a movie where Sarchie is forever exploring gloomy basements and other dark, ominous crypts. At one point, he even walks into an actual lion's den.
A series of horrific, seemingly senseless crimes connect to the three Iraq War veterans, led by gaunt and grisly Santino (Sean Harris in hoodie and goth face paint). Some of Santino's victims babble song lyrics that Sarchie recognizes. In fact, he's started to hear the same tunes in his head. They're by the Doors, which at least makes them more listenable than the music of, say, Cannibal Corpse.
Then Sarchie meets Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), a bad-boy priest and free-range exorcist who's too sexy for his cassock. Curiously, both he and several of Santino's victims speak Spanish or Italian as their first language. Satanic vexation is apparently a Latin tendency, although the ultimate source of the evil, we're told, is Babylonian. (Until now, it was not widely known that ancient Mesopotamian djinns really dug the Doors.)
Ultimately, viewers are treated to what seems to be the most protracted exorcism scene ever filmed. But maybe it's merely, for all its gore and noise, the most boring. Either way, it's time for Derrickson, who also directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose, to master a new ritual.
Christina has a scary jack-in-the-box, but by the time it starts acting up viewers have already experienced at least an hour of things jumping out at them. Stuffed with shock cuts and bloody brawls, Deliver Us From Evil is often well edited, although its music is spliced less artfully.
TV jester Joel McHale plays Sarchie's partner, yet the two men's banter is some of the grimmest in exorcist/cop-drama history. (Switching Indy Jones' "I hate snakes" to "I hate cats" does not qualify as wit.) At least the characters might have made a few cracks about the frequent downpours. The devil may have all the best tunes, but in Deliver Us From Evil, he just can't catch a break from the rain.