Thursday, September 9, 2010

The End Justifies The Means: The Last Exorcism

A lot has been made about the ending to The Last Exorcism, from people feeling cheated to others walking away being completely satisfied. And in some cases, its been reported that film goers have vocalized their anger towards it once the credits begin to roll. I for one, left completely satisfied as I viewed the ending as a perfect bookend to the story and completely logical given the picture I think it was painting regarding the current state of religion. I realize that my conclusion may be seen as 'You are looking way too much into this' and I invite you to tell me if I'm completely off my rocker. For those of you who have yet to see the film, spoilers abound.

Reverend Cotton is the embodiment of how I currently view those in a higher state of moral power, and overall, representative of a much larger problem with religion as a whole. A cocky, ballsy performer who can hold a crowd in the palm of his hand and manipulate them in any way he sees fit. I mentioned the banana nut bread recipe he recited as proof positive of his abilities in my review. But his power and influence goes well beyond reciting something his mother had given him mid-sermon.

His sphere of influence goes beyond the confines of his church, into the rituals which his faith and family have long practiced, the most notable of which, the rites of exorcism. But they aren't rituals born out of true, religious necessity. We come to find out that performing the act is viewed as the treatment of one's temporarily weakened mental state. It's a cathartic release of a perceived ailment which has befallen the victim, a way to rid the individual of something they've attempted to label of which they don't quite understand (i.e. depression, psychosis, etc.). And because they can't quite figure out what's going on, they take it to the extreme and self diagnose: ' I'm possessed.' Others might take a more rational approach to their 'condition', maybe seeking the advice of a doctor or shrink. Instead of doing that, the extremely holy and devote go see their local pastor who readily play into their wildest fears. But why do they exactly? Because of course, as it's explained in the film, they need a paycheck too.

But it's not enough for him to take the money and run, he goes one step further and makes a production out of it. Rigging the bed. Pumping in demonic sounds through his iPod. Stringing various objects together in the room to clang and jingle to give the perception of the 'demon' struggling against the effects of the ritual. All of these smoke and mirrors combining to bring his illusion to life.

What Reverend Cotton represents, is the prime example of what religion has become in its present day form: an institution that allows and promotes manipulation, power over, and a duping of the masses. It's easy pickings to him when it comes to playing into someone's belief that some other power or being has a hold over them. Afterall, they are all pretty predictable. He laughs at letters and other requests he receives, even calling out the contents of the letter before reading it. He is (granted, on a much smaller scale) the preacher on Sunday morning TV, speaking in an arena-sized church filled with thousands of people, completely unsuspecting of the power that is being exerted over them.

So what does this have to do with the end? Where there is Reverend Cotton, there is also his opposite (or so it appears at first). Pastor Manley is the small town pastor who seems to be a genuinely devoted man of the cloth. He talks about how he's reached out to the family, tried to help them in their greatest hour of need. However, our idea of him starts to crack when we are told of his 'parties' with the kids who attend his Sunday school. And it shatters completely when we are confronted with his horrifyingly true intentions at the end of our film.

Certain clues hinted at how the film would end and it made sense when it all unraveled even though the perpetrators turned out to be different. But that's not why the film works for me. Overall, I think the film is an indictment of current organized religion and those who hold a position of power within it. More specifically, it suggests that everyone within the establishment is evil and out for their own self-serving gain. And with no one coming to the rescue of Nell, to a larger extent, I think it suggests that there is no god. That there is no one to save us.

Cortez the Killer


Coach Tammy said...

Nice perspective. I think I'd agree more with your final interpretation if the ending had one small change, but I don't know if I should share my ideal ending... it would be a major spoiler, and might upset someone. What is the etiquette on that?

Bryce Wilson said...

I don't know Cortez.

Its funny I'm one of those people who absolutely hated the ending, but it seems to me the message there, is that if there is an actual demon, then that would mean there is a God. Kind of a reverse of the film's tagline.

That being said, I found the movie's ending unsatisfying and abrupt, I think it's problem is that it didn't go far enough, Its fine for the film to change its tone and go for the balls out demon battle ending, but the way the film crew ran away from it seemed like a cheat.

It hedged its bets far too much.

Theron said...

I'm surprised by the controversy this flick has caused. I understand it, but the intensity of the furor seems out of balance to me. I think it's due to the fact that people feel cheated, more than that they dislike the ending. Hmm...

Cortez The Killer said...

@Coach Tammy, since I prefaced everything with potential spoilers abound, have at it. I'm interested to hear your take.

@Bryce, good point. I hadn't thought of the tagline. I just felt like the film conveyed utter hopelessness as one perceived follower of god wasn't true to his faith and another, seemingly more strong, turned out to be even more evil. And the fact that Nell wasn't saved lead me to my conclusion.

I see your point and do agree that it ended rather abruptly. But again, I can't see how it would end any other way. If the exorcism was performed and all was well, it would just be aping that 'other' notorious exorcism movie.

@Theron, me too. I think it more has to do with the fact that its open to interpretation. Film goers today like a resolution. A nice tidy, gift wrapped, sensible ending. I think that's why its received such a harsh response.

Coach Tammy said...

Ok, cool. I liked the ending, except for her giving birth to a real demon. I would have liked it more if the killers were just crazed Satan worshipers, posing as Christians by day. As Bryce says above, having there be an actual demon indicates the existence of God... thereby lending credence to the religious zealots, and taking away from what would have been a "really could happen" horror.
Of course, as I sat in on the Q&A w/Roth & Stamm, I can see why they went the way they did. And it was a powerful moment when the main character sees the demon, and his faith is restored (or maybe ignited for the first time), as he charges in. In a way, even though he was charging to his death, one could say he did so happily, as the guilt of his way of life had just been lifted.

Not sure I explained that as well as I could have, but those are my thoughts.

Coach Tammy said...

BTW, I found you via twitter. I'm tmetz1226... haven't figured out how to get all my identities to come together ;)

Cortez The Killer said...

Coach Tammy, wow, that is a great interpretation of the ending as well. One I hadn't thought of. Did you get any indication at all from the Q&A that they meant to leave the ending open?

Either way, I think having the open ending is what's pissing off people the most. People today like a gift wrapped ending with everything neatly resolved.Just my opinion though.

Coach Tammy said...

Stamm said, if this had really been happening, the camera guy wouldn't have known who to focus the camera on in a satanic ritual, he'd just be thinking about gettin' the hell out of there... which is what he tried to do. Since all the other drawings from earlier in the film came to pass (the dead cat, the head chopped off the camera man, the reporter chopped up), we're left to assume that he went into the fire and was consumed... as his picture depicted.

Then there was a little joke about, if this were real, who do we think edited and distributed it? There was an audience split between it being a satanic cult recruitment video, and a Cotton marketing ploy to get more exorcism business. ;)

Promotional Pens said...

Ha Coach Tammy. Well spoken.

Emily said...

Just saw the movie and firstly, I really enjoyed it far more than I expected. Extremely creepy, but also quite well-acted, enough so to really pull you in and get on board with wherever it would end up.

Perhaps because I literally had a conversation last night with my boyfriend about how satanism was so big in '80s cinema, I was totally fine with the ending. It was a twist that made me angry that I hadn't seen it coming (usually, I always suspect those shifty supporting characters) and was executed incredibly well. I swear, kids' drawings of death never fail to keep me on edge.

As for your interpretation Cortez, great stuff. I didn't think too deeply about it (especially as I left the theater an hour ago) but I totally think you make a valid point in explaining how the film is targeting not just religion, but the men (and occasionally but not as often, women) who end up with ridiculous amounts of power over their followers' minds and hearts. I also agree with Tammy about Cotton's sudden rediscovery of faith at the end. I don't know that he was doing it for his God or Nell, but he definitely charged into that fire with full belief in something big.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Pretty much agree with everything you say on this article Cortez!

I think even though the movie itself eventually chickens out in the end and makes the supernatural real, its real intent is to expose religion, make people think: damn, this reverend might be on to something!

I think the ending is something they did to not come off as too rebellious, as if saying, fine, we said all these things about religion...but hey, the reverend was wrong all along! Demons are real? See?

My answer to that is: I loved the movie for what the points it put across, and demons are only real in movies and in peoples imagination.

I wouldnt be surprised if there was an alternate ending to the film where the father was indeed raping his daughter...I guess we'll have to wait for the dvd to see it.

barbara said...

I went to see the film last night and me and my friend came out and just looked at each other and said 'what the hell?!'

Most of the film I could get on board with, I especially liked the bit when it 'seemed' like she was just Nell but a little insane (breaking her fingers and bludgeoning cats to death). That was where it started to get a little...silly for me. I also didn't really understand what was going on, so if somebody would explain it that would be great.

Was she possesed then, or was she faking it? Were they a cult, or were they just trying to get rid of the demon? why the hell did the brother suddenly turn evil out of the blue? That was just confusing in my opinion.

Grey @ The dARk HOurs Horror Podcast said...

Personally I loved the ending. the fact that it leaves events open to interpretation is what I love about it. But honestly I don't know how open the ending is. It is rather bleak, evoking those classic Carpenter-esch endings of the 80s.

What would people have preferred? An ending along the lines of The Village where (SPOILER)
everything ends up being fake? I thought that was the way it was going and honestly I would have been satisfied either way

Cortez The Killer said...

@Coach Tammy, interesting. And funny thoughts about if it was real, what the video could have been used for. Good stuff.

@Emily, watch it again you'll pick up on the subtle clues. Regardless, the perpetrators (the father vs. the cult) of who acctually impregnated Nell totally turned out to be different and I didn't see that coming at all.

Thanks for the compliment Emily. I love that this film has evoked so many varied emotions and viewpoints.

@Barbara, she wasn't possessed per se but rather, through the act of being violently impregnated (intimated with the pastor and his 'parties' line) a real demon was conceived and eventually birthed. So yes, in a way she was possessed and in a way she was not. The psychotic episodes she had definitely kept us guessing. And could have been a reaction to being raped. But in the end, she gave birth to a demon, possessed or not. But I could see where that confusion could come in. And it would have been an interesting twist. Like what if the cult was disposing the baby and they were not in fact satanic? Which brings me to...

@TFC, that would be intersting if there was an alternate ending. And to the point above, what if the cult was actually there to save them and not to ensure that evil was unleashed upon on earth?

@Grey, interesting. If the film HAD ended that way. I would have been pissed. Glad it didn't.

Geof said...

Whether it is liked or hated, look at the depth of conversation that comes from this film. I am not kissing your ass or anything JC because you know I was really hyping it up to you before you saw it. So you know we are on the same page with the messaging, the clues and the commentary on religion.

For those who did not like the ending, it is good to hear some intelligent critiques, which makes me love this film even more. On the surface it seems like a shallow, gimmick flick but it so much more than that.