Deliver Us From Evil is a horror film about Bronx policeman Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), who finds himself investigating a demonic possession with the help of sexy former heroin-addict priest Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez). As far as exorcism flicks go, it’s depressingly boilerplate stuff — the edgiest aspect is that it claims to be based on the true stories of the real Ralph Sarchie, a former cop who engaged in some demonology on the side, then wrote a book about it.
Director Scott Derrickson, who’s slated to helm a Doctor Strange movie for Marvel, has made better horror films before (like 2012’s Sinister) — he’s even made better based-on-a-true-story exorcism dramas before (2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose). But there’s one thing Deliver Us From Evil, which opens in theaters today, has going for it: Joel McHale, who plays Ralph’s wiseass partner Butler, aka the only character in the movie who seems to realize he’s in a very silly story being told very seriously. Here’s why he’s great:
While Ralph is and looks like a character right out of every television police procedural (with added supernatural sensitivity), Butler, for whatever reason, dresses like a nü-metal-loving frat boy. The cap, there to spark an early conversation to reinforce Ralph’s extreme New Yorkiness, is a Red Sox one. After putting it on backward (presumably for his own protection in Yankee territory), Butler just leaves it that way for most of the movie. Also, he rocks cargo pants and has the seven deadly sins tattooed on the back of his neck for reasons unrelated to the demonic shenanigans being investigated.
Butler carries a gun, but he prefers to use the multiple knives he’s got hidden on his person, a switchbladey thing he flips around in conversation before using it to cut fruit. He exists in a world in which another character talks about having beat a suspected pedophile to death with his bare hands, the only consequence of which is apparently that he felt bad afterward, so maybe it’s not a big deal that Butler also pulls a knife on multiple baddies. But you have to wonder what one of the pair’s reports looks like — “The suspect approached me, at which point I stabbed him multiple times with a knife in self-defense”?
While Bana and Olivia Munn, who plays Ralph’s frustrated wife Jen, attempt some strained New York accents, McHale doesn’t bother. He just sounds like snarky ol’ Joel McHale, stopping by this set between shooting The Soup and Community. “Do you think she’s single?” he asks after a deranged, frothing-at-the-mouth possessee is dragged out of the precinct. McHale tends to approach his acting roles with an edge of ironic remove — it can feel like he’s performing with air quotes. But that ended up working in his favor with Jeff Winger on Community, and here, it adds to the feeling that he belongs in a different movie. Because…
And that movie is a ’90s buddy-cop action-comedy. Butler jokes about how Ralph has a “radar” for trouble that ends with one of them getting stitches. The closest he gets to character development is being called an “adrenaline junkie.” He gets in a knife fight. He has no apparent home life. And as Deliver Us From Evil trots out more overfamiliar sequences than spooky ones (the demon even has its origins in Iraq, like the one in The Exorcist), that theoretical ’90s buddy-cop action-comedy seems more and more appealing. Bana used to be a funny guy — he could play the straight man, they’d have a few car chases, trade some quips, and never have to worry about making The Doors sound spooky the way Deliver Us From Evil hopes to.