Did you know that there was a court case — a murder trial! — in the US in the 1980s in which the defense attorney actually argued that the devil made the defendant do it? That the young man accused of murdering his landlord was not guilty by reason of *checks notes* demonic possession? Isn’t that extraordinary? Wouldn’t it be something to see that depicted onscreen? How would such an argument be mounted, and how would it hold up in the courtroom?
This really happened, and it is the story that The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It wants to tell. Except, bizarrely, this clumsy movie avoids the courtroom almost entirely. Perhaps because, in real life, the judge laughed that argument out of court, wouldn’t allow it at all. A good script could have found a way to deal with that, a way to twist it, maybe, into something about all these fools who cannot appreciate that the world has more things in it than are dreamt in our philosophy, etc and so on.
Alas, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick’s script is not good. (He also wrote — I use the word loosely — Aquaman, The Conjuring 2, and Orphan.) He avoids pragmatic reality, the kind in which someone authentically tried to make a rational case for the supernatural, in favor of elevating con-artist demon hunters and ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren to wannabe mythic status. Yet again, when it comes to these Conjuring movies.
This was almost forgivable in the first movie, thanks to the warm performances and palpable chemistry of Patrick Wilson (The Assistant, The Commuter) and Vera Farmiga (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Front Runner) as the couple, which at least imparted a slight benefit-of-the-doubt to them: maybe they were awful people, or maybe they had merely set up a cosy house in a shared delusion. The second Conjuring film sidelined Wilson and Farmiga’s characters, for some unfathomable reason, and instead gave us very rote, very clichéd spook-house nonsense. This one, the third outing in the series and — Yahweh and Satan help us, probably not the last — puts them center stage again, but not to any ameliorating effect, and to greatly diminished returns.
I mean, they’re still great, Wilson and Farmiga as the Warrens: he charmingly holds her purse while she investigates a thing in one scene; she’s lovingly solicitous of his health, which has faltered thanks to a heart attack (demon-induced, doncha know); they portray so handsome and devoted a couple that a case could be made for the immorality of depicting horrible people in a positive way onscreen.
Another way to look at it, though: The Warrens are wholly, preposterously credulous. When 20something Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) murders Bruno (Ronnie Gene Blevins: The Perfect Guy, Seven Psychopaths) by stabbing him viciously and repeatedly, then claims that he can’t remember any of it, it is the Warrens themselves who suggest that perhaps a demon inside him is instead responsible. You see, the Warrens had recently *ahem* “exorcised” David (Julian Hilliard: Color Out of Space) — the little brother of Arne’s girlfriend, Debbie Glatzel (Sarah Catherine Hook) — a trial during which Arne invited the demon to leave David’s body and take over his own. (That sounds like a reasonable way to soothe a disturbed child with whom one enjoys a warm friendship, as we see that Arne does with David.) Ed witnessed this “invitation.” But no one, certainly not the Warrens, broach a far more likely explanation for Arne’s homicidal predicament: that Arne got the idea to blame a demon for his crime — may have even gotten the idea to commit the crime itself, with this built-in paranormal “alibi” — from the Warrens and their gullibility and/or con artistry. If the Warrens can get away with this nonsense, maybe Arne could as well, and even rope them into his defense…
Not that The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t just as ridiculously credulous as the Warrens, but the movie itself completely lacks their confidence and mom-and-pop charm. Of course, the truth of the supernatural, especially of the evil sort, is always offered as a given in movies about hauntings and possessions and the like. But Devil goes way beyond the usual, dangling the promise of proving demons are real and then snatching that back. It’s much more difficult to suspend our disbelief when, for instance, we have a scene in which the Warrens invite Arne’s skeptical lawyer (Ashley LeConte Campbell: One Night in Miami…, Get Out) round their place for dinner, so they can demonstrate to her just how real demons are. She readily agrees… but the film skips right over that demonstration to the lawyer, ashen-faced and presumably totally convinced, announcing to the court her intention to put forth that “devil made me do it” defense. “We don’t know what scared her so bad!” the movie admits. “Bet it was something really scary, huh?”
Oh, and the movie skips right over the judge putting the kibosh that defense, so we never do get to see a legal argument for demonic possession. (The 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose does do something of the sort, however). And still the film ends up implying that the ultimate verdict that Arne Johnson faced did, in fact, hinge on such an argument.
This is far from the only place where the film cheats, or simply can’t be bothered to tell even the story it wants to tell. After much harping by the Warrens on the necessity of finding who is responsible for the initial targeting of the Glatzel family — for they were, apparently, deliberately cursed by someone, for some unknown reason — this is completely forgotten. It’s all random, I guess, because “satanists” are into “chaos”? That may be… but it’s another tale entirely, not the procedural on offer here.
Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, there’s this, which I suspect the movie thinks is the occult rabbit it’s pulling out of its rational hat. “The court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth,” Ed Warren announces, and the movie loves this so much it’s in the trailer. “I think it’s about time it accepted the existence of the Devil.” Now, Ed’s not wrong here, in that reality has painted itself into a corner. But he misses the obvious other implication of this: that the court is wrong to accept the existence of God. It requires a lot more than rhetoric to prove the existence of demons, and The Devil Made Me Do It is far from up to the task.