[Editor’s Note: This is the third and final entry in our second block of films, which was dedicated to scary movies. A lot of real life happened to some of us last October, so this entry was delayed. We’re releasing it now, and you can look forward to our fourth block of hard-to-defend films coming in early 2016. As always, thanks for reading. -JDW]
Jeremy: Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist. This prequel, set 25 years before Father Merrin declares his love for the demon Pazuzu at a New Year’s Eve party, tells the story of how fate brought them together for the first time on a road trip to New York. Wait… am I thinking of When Harry Met Sally?
Brett: When Merrin Met Pazuzu? I wish Exorcist wasn’t in the title. If it were just a movie called Dominion, it would be a spooky little thriller that turns into a ghost story. With the title as it stands, you are sitting there the whole time going “Yeah, it’s Pazuzu, we know. I saw the title.”
I don’t think the movie completely comes together. Not in a way that makes you say “this is garbage” but in a way that makes you say “It didn’t quite get there.”
Gabby: I agree. If it was just called Dominion, then it would have had a chance with audiences. Connecting it to a classic movie automatically burdens it with unnecessary prejudice. I find it does feel like its own little creepy and fun spooky horror.
Jeremy: I never thought about how the title spoils the movie. I’m sure Dominion would’ve been called Exorcist: The Beginning or something like it if this film hadn’t been shelved for an entirely new film made by Renny Harlin.
Gabby: Jeremy, you picked this, can you tell us about why you are keen to talk about it?
Jeremy: I genuinely love this movie. It’s flawed, to be sure. You have to keep in mind that it never received a full post-production. It isn’t truly finished. The history of its troubled production is endlessly fascinating to me.
A big studio, Morgan Creek, gives Paul Schrader, an idiosyncratic director known for introspective, slow-burn thrillers, $30 million to make the fourth installment in a beloved – if musty – franchise. Then, they’re surprised when he turns in an introspective, slow-burn thriller, more of a character study than a horror movie.
I don’t get how Morgan Creek was surprised by the film Schrader delivered, or why they thought spending an additional $50 million dollars to reshoot a completely different film with most of the same actors and story elements would pay off, financially or critically. It’s a curious, depressing bit of Hollywood history – especially since this isn’t the first Exorcist film Morgan Creek took out of a director’s hands and screwed up.
Gabby: What are the elements that keep you coming back to this one?
Jeremy: It’s a meditation on faith that resonates with me, despite having no faith of my own. Stellan Skarsgård’s performance makes this movie for me, and I find something new in it on every viewing. His choices are subtle, thoughtful. You always feel the weight Merrin is carrying and how he wants to deny the forces at work around him. Ultimately, he can’t.
Early in the film, Merrin says, “I believed God let us decide between good and evil. I chose good. Evil happened.” The whole movie hangs on this moment. Even if Dominion is largely concerned with the loss and rediscovery of Merrin’s faith, Merrin always chooses good. Faith bolsters him, but his goodness starts from within.
Of course, there’s no way to have an Exorcist movie without God and the Devil, but I feel Schrader is saying that our capacity for good and evil is both tied to and separate from these forces. Is God there the day the Nazis force Merrin to choose which of his followers will be executed? Maybe. Maybe not. The outcome would’ve been the same.
And that leads to my favorite moment in the film: Pazuzu’s offer for Merrin to revisit that day and do things differently, to die fighting instead of having to choose those victims. Pazuzu wants to seduce Merrin by taking his guilt away, but what Merrin finds in reliving that moment is a way to live with his guilt, because he discovers there was no way to be a hero. That would’ve been a foolish, selfish act, causing even greater suffering.
That’s an incredibly complex notion… and an ugly truth for a big studio release (or a movie that would’ve been a big studio release). The film never judges Merrin for his part in that atrocity. What did you think of that?
Brett: I liked that he was going to lose no matter what. I also liked that the demon let him off the hook by letting him know.
Gabby: I highly agree with the anchored performance from Skarsgård. His way of translating those inner reflections and struggles with his faith really make the movie resonant as we can all connect to and contemplate that feeling of doubt.
The use of Nazis is a way of making the Satan versus God dichotomy more, as you say Jeremy, human. Intrinsically, we are always struggling with good and evil. What is wrong or right? If we are questioning it, though, I believe this differentiates us as caring and involved with what is around us. A longing to be good.
That moment of Merrin being forced into choosing who will live, that separates this movie into one that raises these ideas and in turn makes it a movie that overcomes its flaws. Intelligent debates being posed by filmmakers are so much more than a lot more forgettable average movies strive for.
How do you feel the location plays into the film and its themes?
Jeremy: They get a lot out of the setting, visually and thematically. Schrader has no interest in being subtle when drawing parallels between the Nazis and the British… and to a lesser extent, with Father Francis and his missionary work. Merrin and Rachel are the only white characters in the film who aren’t trying to exert their will or beliefs onto anyone they perceive as different.
Between the three of us, I don’t believe we have a nationalist bone in our bodies, but what did you think of the way the British were depicted in this movie?
Brett: I didn’t so much see it as Anti-British so much as general anti-imperialism. It just so happens that the Imperialistic dick-heads in this story happen to be Brits. It could have been Americans in 2006 Afghanistan, it could have been French in 1625 Ohio Valley.
Gabby: I agree with Brett. There is a universality in the way the characters behave. I think the way in which the British are portrayed feeds into that. It is more about people as a whole. Not nations.
Jeremy: Oh, I completely agree, but the film dwells on colonialism and religious indoctrination. I only bring it up because it’s a brave – and probably deliberate – choice for an American film made between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.
What did both of you think of Rachel and Father Francis? And the actors playing them?
Gabby: In all honesty, they didn’t do much for me. Even though I found Father Francis as a character interesting, they were neither memorable to me. I think I will come back to this one down the road to give them another chance.
Jeremy: I get that. Merrin has one too many scenes with both characters, where the same emotional beats are repeated. Gabriel Mann is fine as Father Francis, though stuck trying to find new ways to play the same note again and again. On the other hand, I find Clara Bellar captivating. The script does a good job of making her both strong and wounded.
And I admire the complexity of Rachel and Merrin’s relationship – possibly a little less than love, but something more than friendship. Since this is a prequel, we know they will give each other up. I appreciate that their goodbye isn’t some emotionally wrought moment. They acknowledge it’s the way things have to be.
Every time I get to the end of the film, I think to myself, “You know, Merrin, you could go Episcopalian. They can get married. It’s pretty much the same thing, right?”
Brett: Yeah, there is a sort of love story there.
Gabby: Overall, how do you come away from this movie?
Brett: This is, for me, a “You could watch this maybe.” Not the strongest recommendation, but I am glad I saw this and will probably watch it again sometime. If it’s on, leave it on. If you’re scrolling through your streaming service of choice and you see it, go ahead and click on it. I probably wouldn’t seek it out, but if I happen across it, I’ll watch it again.
Jeremy: I revisited most of the Exorcist movies this October. I’ve always liked the good entries in this series, but I didn’t realize how much until I watched them all so close together. Even if I see the religious aspects as allegory, I love the atmosphere and meditative tone of the original film, Exorcist III, and Dominion.
Objectively, Dominion is the weakest of the three. In many ways, though, it’s my favorite.
Part of it is the locations and period setting, but mostly, I connect with this interpretation of Father Merrin and the idea that the better angels of our nature can help us survive evil when it can’t be conquered whole. I don’t know what that says about me… but here we are.
True, Dominion’s never that scary – but if you’re willing to meet this film on its terms, you’ll find much to appreciate.