Iraq, 2010: as a trio of American soldiers make their way from sandy dunes into dark woods, they’re briefly distracted by the sight of scuttling black spiders, slithering snakes, and what look to be copulating bats. Making their way through weapons fire, they discover a tunnel that takes them deep underground, where one of their helmet-cams captures static and darkness and couple of “What the fuck is that?” exclamations.
The video image zaps out here, a couple of minutes into Deliver Us From Evil, before the guys might have found, oh, Dick Cheney. What they have done is set up the next scene, set in the Bronx, 2013. Here you see Detective Ralph Sarchie (on whose 2001 memoir the film is based, suggesting the Iraq part is made up) at work in a driving rain. Work this time has Sarchie (played by Eric Bana) trying to breathe life back into a dead baby found in a dumpster, then driving off into the night with his partner, Butler (Joel McHale).
That night leads them to a domestic call, the type they don’t usually take, but this time they do, because Sarchie has a hunch it will be bad. Butler calls this his buddy’s radar, a nose for cases that will, as Sarchie explains, fulfill Butler’s junkie-like need for an adrenaline rush. Yes, they’re a perfect pair, these two, a perfection that will become clearer as the movie’s gears grind louder.
It turns out that this case does go very bad, and that the wife-beater is one of the guys who was in Iraq. He’s come back with some kind of deep evil inside him, of the sort you might expect in a movie titled Deliver Us From Evil.
In fact, that evil has multiple embodiments here, and as much as Sarchie and Butler treat them like run of the mill crazies and criminals, the cops will eventually be convinced that something else is afoot. And so they accept help from Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), a charismatic, shaggy-headed priest who stops by to offer it.
An exorcism expert, Mendoza smokes cigarettes and drinks hard, explaining to Sarchie that these bad habits remind him of his worse past (including a nearly fatal heroin addiction). This friendship, between fierce believer Mendoza and lapsed Catholic Sarchie, occasions the film’s only extended dialogue, most of it focused on the nature of evil, the scope of evil, and their own previous encounters with evil.
As Sarchie comes to trust the “padre”, he’s also able to come to terms with his deeply troubled past. This process takes some time, which leaves you in your own sort of limbo, knowing where the heavy-handed clues are going (including a demon telling Sarchie that, as a cop, he “has a heavy hand”), and waiting for Sarchie and Mendoza to catch up. Close-ups ensure that even if no one else sees the tattoo of the seven deadly sins on the back of Butler’s neck or the owls who show up at the zoo and then in Sarchie’s yard, you do.
You also have to sit through the scary moments for Sarchie’s pixie-doll of a six-year-old (Lulu Wilson), whose bedroom is haunted by scratchy sounds (“Maybe it’s mice”) and… wait for it… a stuffed owl she brings home from the zoo. Sarchie misses these scares because he’s busy hearing assorted Doors songs in his mind, scratching paint off walls to discover cryptic messages, being bitten by a possessed lady, and fighting with animal-like ex-soldiers.
It’s a tough workday, to be sure, and so he tells his wife Jen (Olivia Munn) that because “I walk through this never-ending hell, I don’t want to come home to do it again with you.” Translation: he won’t talk to her and she has to feel bad about it.
So okay, Deliver Us From Evil is another horror movie that depends on clichés, from the terrified child and the long-suffering wife to the demons speaking in tongues and priest wrestling with personal transgressions to traumatized soldiers and the tough cop who’s redeemed by his encounter with the Big Bad. It might be worth thinking about, for a minute or so, why this Big Bad start in Iraq, with American soldiers confronting scary writing on the wall and crunching over a collection of human skulls.
It’s one thing to point to, say, Jacob’s Ladder as a model for incorporating recent history into a horror movie, but Adrian Lyne’s movie made the war in Vietnam. Or more precisely, he made the Americans’ abuse of their own soldiers the focus of its inquiry.
It’s another thing to refer as if in passing to a monstrous, ongoing history, to lose focus except in moments when it’s convenient (Mendoza notes, again, in passing, that mixing Latin and Persian languages is not unprecedented). If there’s not one good reason for the Iraq reference, it still sits like an anvil on the chest of this movie.
It’s not to say that Deliver Us From Evil has a particular “us” in mind (that reference seems more likely another cliché). And it’s not to say that “Iraq” here looms as anything other than a topical cliché in itself.
But someone, somewhere during the long chronology of this project, came up with this idea, the one piece that doesn’t obviously fit with the rest of it. War is bad, demons are bad, walking on human skulls is bad. And then what? Maybe Dick Cheney, after all.