Russell Crowe’s in 2 Exorcism Films? Yes, and Here’s Why the Roles Work

Russell Crowe’s in 2 Exorcism Films? Yes, and Here’s Why the Roles Work


Russell Crowe is going through a religious phase.

In 2023, “The Pope’s Exorcist” showcased the actor as — you guessed it — the Vatican’s official exorcist. In “The Exorcism,” released Friday, he’s at it again, this time playing a washed-up movie star cast in the role of an exorcist. The set is cursed and Crowe’s Tony, an emotionally tormented single father and recovering addict, is ripe for demonic possession.

Aside from the obvious, the two unrelated movies couldn’t be more different. “The Pope’s Exorcist” leans into schlock, with Crowe sporting a delightfully hammy Italian accent. “The Exorcism” is a relatively somber affair, generating thrills by relying on Crowe’s explosive, fevered performance. In both cases, he fits seamlessly into the world of satanic menace, which, per the genre’s blueprint, trades in questions of faith and repentance, and sees imperfect yet noble souls waging spiritual warfare against supernatural forces of evil. Why is Crowe so suited to these ungodly movies?

One might ask why Crowe is starring in these B-movies in the first place. In the 2000s, Crowe was nominated for a best actor Oscar three years in a row, but at the height of his fame he was associated with the kind of midbudget adult dramas that have become endangered in today’s theatrical landscape. He is getting older, too. At 60, he’s not the strapping It Boy who rallied the Roman masses in “Gladiator” (2000), or the same hunk who made headlines for his on-set romance with Meg Ryan, his “Proof of Life” (2000) co-star. Like many actors of his generation, he’s now playing showbiz with a different set of cards in an industry that looks radically different than when he started out.

Crowe’s exorcism-themed movies may seem like lesser gigs. In both “The Pope’s Exorcist” and “The Exorcism,” he’s convincingly loony, playing it straight within the films’ unrealistic conceits while also, somehow, never losing sight of the ridiculousness that makes a good horror movie fun. At the same time, this pocket of horror makes surprisingly inventive use of his dramatic powers and the range he’s developed over the past 30-plus years.

Crowe’s Hollywood breakout role, as Bud White, a gruff policeman with his own moral code in “L.A. Confidential” (1997), established him as a dramatic heavyweight; a quintessentially masculine leading man who infused real angst and vulnerability into brutish characters. Just look at the concentration in Crowe’s eyes when White raids a rapist’s home and shoots him dead, planting a gun in his hand to make it look like self-defense.

In Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” which made Crowe a household name and landed him an Oscar, he kept it cool, smirking as he slaughtered his opponents before bursting out in thunderous rage, “Are you not entertained?”

He’d bring this same barely bottled-up brutality to other action movies, like “3:10 to Yuma” (2007) and “Robin Hood” (2010), his fifth collaboration with Scott. Crowe’s aggression, however, was always tempered by his natural charm. Sure, he could beat you to a pulp if you crossed him, but he also seemed like a guy you could grab a pint with.

Crowe isn’t just muscle. His gaze, exacting and intense, communicates a mind doing its own heavy lifting. In Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003), Crowe’s Jack Aubrey, a Royal Navy officer leading the charge against Napoleon by sea, is electric even when he’s staring at maps, silently strategizing and plotting the ship’s course. It’s no wonder that “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), for which Crowe scored his third Oscar nomination, shifts so seamlessly from romantic biopic to thriller. As John Nash, the pioneering mathematician with schizophrenia, Crowe’s thinking is so prodigious that it literally takes on a life of its own when Nash succumbs to his conspiratorial hallucinations.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” relies on Crowe’s smarts to raise the stakes. In the movie’s view, the Roman Catholic Church is becoming increasingly obsolete and most exorcisms, well, they’re not real exorcisms. Usually the so-called possessed are just faking it, and it’s up to Crowe’s Gabriel to suss out the phonies through mind games and “a little theater,” as he puts it. Gabriel is a quick wit, nonchalant in the face of disturbing scenarios.

That’s not new for Crowe, who has from the start excelled at playing men with histories and deep traumas that give his characters an earthy, practical wisdom and make them seem calloused. It wasn’t until “The Nice Guys” (2016), his buddy cop movie with Ryan Gosling, that Crowe fully channeled this slick indifference for comedic purposes. When Gabriel is finally met with the real deal — Satan possesses a young boy whose family has moved into a cursed villa — Crowe shifts between cocky self-possession and panicked loss of control.

For all the epic heroes and geniuses he’s played, Crowe’s persona has always felt devastatingly human. “Zeus is many things, but Zeus is not pure,” Crowe proclaims as the god of gods in “Thor: Love and Thunder” (2022).

Crowe’s characters are confident to the point of arrogance — he often played law enforcers who bucked the system — but there’s also an intriguing flip side to this hubris. Crowe might be hard to knock down, but when he is, it’s pure spectacle, the impetus for tragedy — or horror — that takes on wild, even spiritual, dimensions. As Crowe has aged and we begin to look at male movie heroics more critically, the short fuse and impulsivity that once gave his action roles a certain romantic quality have in some ways become more evidently toxic, ugly failures in composure. Crowe embraced this quality in “Unhinged” (2020), a gonzo road rage thriller about an unstable man who unleashes bloody, over-the-top vengeance on a female driver.

In “The Exorcism,” Tony is stunted by guilt and remorse, and we meet him as he tries, with quivering vulnerability, to repair his relationship with his daughter, Lee (Ryan Simpkins), and restart his acting career. These efforts don’t fare well. Tony’s metaphorical demons become literal ones as the possession takes hold and Crowe — sweaty, miserable and always seemingly on the verge of a heart attack — channels his signature rage into something more abject, blurring the lines between the film’s realistic and fantastical elements. Tony’s possession looks like a drug relapse from Lee’s terrified point of view.

“The Exorcism” isn’t a great film. It’s self-serious even when Crowe isn’t (there’s one scene in which he bursts through a dressing room mirror to kill the actor who replaces him). Still, the exorcism genre’s outlandish dynamics of good and evil allow us to see his manly shtick in a new, performative light, one in which he’s able to reckon with — and poke fun at — his past sins while giving him an epic context (what could be weightier than eternal damnation?) to showcase his intensity. Stardom endures when it’s nimble, open-minded and willing to try new acts. Consider this Crowe’s latest.

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