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