Writer-director Scott Derrickson (2012's "Sinister
") has proven on more than one occasion that he is a filmmaker of splendid nuance and control, his horror pictures in particular rife with far more on their minds than predictable, empty-headed, style-centric fright grabs. His latest feature, "Deliver Us from Evil," also has more to say, but the problem is that the very same themes revolving around faith, religion and the darker corners of the supernatural were explored with far greater eloquence and depth in 2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose
." Heavy-handed and relying frequently on a plethora of passé jump scares, the film, co-written by Paul Harris Boardman (2014's "Devil's Knot
"), comes off as too pat, too similar and not half as indelibly layered as most of Derrickson's past work.
A loose adaptation of Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool's autobiographical book "Beware the Night," "Deliver Us from Evil" casts Eric Bana (2013's "Lone Survivor
") as Sarchie, an overworked Bronx-based NYPD sergeant whose emotionally draining profession keeps him from seeing wife Jen (Olivia Munn) and 6-year-old daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson) as much as either of them would like. When he and partner Butler (Joel McHale) encounter a series of disturbing callsone involving an abusive husband, another pertaining to the body of a painter found in a family's basement, a third associated with oddball happenings at a zoothey quickly connect them to a trio of soldiers who were dishonorably discharged from Iraq three years earlier for violently attacking a chaplain. Raised as Catholic before he "outgrew all that," Sarchie is skeptical of the demonic possession which Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) claims is circling them. The deeper he becomes embroiled in phenomena he cannot explain, however, the more he begins to rethink his agnosticism.
Whereas "The Exorcism of Emily Rose
" traversed similar subject matter, one of the reasons it was so thought-provoking was that the accounttaken from the true story of an ill-fated girl named Anneliese Michelwas based on varying court testimonies, some obviously more reliable than others. In the end, the viewer was left to grapple with whether or not the events leading up to Emily's tragic death were a case of possession or religious fanaticism. In "Deliver Us from Evil," there is no room for interpretation because it is spelled out almost from the start that evils not of this world are prowling the New York streets. On numerous occasions, Derrickson's absorbing directorial rhythm and the moody, grit-filled lensing by cinematographer Tom Stern (2014's "Jersey Boys
") are betrayed by a disappointing dependence on jump scares. A dog suddenly barks just out of frame, malevolent faces pop up in front of the camera lens, even a bear growls and startles Sarchieand for all of that convoluted pageantry only a single stinger where the officer spots a stranger lurking over little Christina's bed comes off as genuinely hair-raising.
Beyond the mostly uninspired genre tropes, the movie wants to be an inspirational tale where our troubled hero, wrestling a crippling amount of internal demons of his own, returns to faith. This in and of itself is fine, but the script is tidy, overwrought and, by the end, saccharine (as a side note, why has Sarchie's daughter's name been changed for the film when her real-life counterpart's name is plainly mentioned in the closing postscript?). A third-act exorcism is melodramatic and silly, punctuated by the sole black character in the film showing up for exactly two lines, both of them profanity-laced one-liners. As Ralph Sarchie, Eric Bana is contemplative and intense, giving his everything to a character who has seen unimaginable things in his line of work that won't stop haunting him. Joel McHale (2014's "Blended
") capably sheds all of his comedic baggage to turn in a confident dramatic performance as Butler, while Édgar Ramírez (2013's "The Counselor
") is captivatingly cast as unlikely drug-addict-turned-priest Mendoza. The writing of Jen, Sarchie's wife, is another matter altogether, close to offensive in the way she falls so neatly into the dreary, standard role of a long-suffering significant other who has no interests, hobbies, career or any other development outside of standing in front of a sink and nagging at her husband to spend more time with the family. Olivia Munn (2012's "Magic Mike
") does what she can in this thankless part, systematic of all that is too often wrong with the way women are handled in male-dominated film narratives.
"Deliver Us from Evil" is a grisly thriller composed of talent on both sides of the camera, but the material rarely rises above lukewarm. In lieu of building an unmistakable aura of tension, the picture goes the easy, forgettable route of having things pop out at the audience every ten minutes. A running bit with a stuffed owl in Christina's room is an additional missed opportunity. Late in the film, Mendoza tells Sarchie he has a gift for, what he calls, the discernment of spiritsthat is, one who can sense what others in the spiritual realm are thinking. This definition does not adequately describe what is seen on the screen, nor does this plot thread lead anywhere. There are spare potent moments sprinkled throughout, including a brutal face-off involving Butler in a stairwell and a running musical motif concerning The Doors, but the bulk of the movie doesn't properly grab hold of the viewer as it should. Ultimately, the unsubtle "Deliver Us from Evil" sells itself short, lacking ambiguity and existing too patently on the surface to probe the valid existential ideas underneath.