Stellan Skarsgård (Thor)
Gabriel Mann (Cherry Falls)
Clara Bellar (American Dreams)
Billy Crawford (A Second Chance)
Ralph Brown (Alien 3)
Julian Wadham (The English Patient)
In order to understand just what exactly this movie is, a little back story is probably necessary. A few years ago, director Paul Schrader (director of Hardcore and writer of Taxi Driver) was brought on board at Warner Brothers to helm what was to be the fourth film in the Exorcist franchise. The film was to be a prequel and it would tell the story of what happened to Father Merrin when he was in Africa and fill us in on the events that are hinted at in William Friedkin’s original film.
Schrader went off and made his movie, but when the suits at Warner Brothers/Morgan Creek got their first chance to check it out, they were not at all impressed with the direction that Schrader had taken the story. His was a very dark and very thought provoking film and it would seem that the studio wanted a more commercially viable option, one that was, for lack of a nastier term, dumbed down a bit for broader mass appeal with more blood and gore to satiate what the studio likely considered the typical horror movie crowd. To get what they wanted out of their investment, Warner Brothers hired Finnish action movie director Renny Harlin (of Deep Blue Sea and Cutthroat Island), to shoot some new material, re-cut the movie, and basically, in this reviewers opinion, turn it into a dumb action horror movie. The reception, both at the box office and in terms of critical acclaim, to Harlin’s film was unimpressive and seeing as they already had a finished film from Schrader, Warner Brothers opted to give Schrader’s film a chance on DVD.
The film begins when a younger Father Lankaster Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) is in his native Holland, currently under Nazi occupation. A Nazi soldier has been found dead and now the commanding officer has got the townspeople lined up to answer for it. He asks Merrin to save the majority of them by pointing out to him the murderer – after all, he should know as he takes confession from everyone in town. Merrin refuses, and instead of killing the one man responsible for it, the Nazis shoot a woman in cold blood, forcing Merrin to pick nine more people from the population of the town to die. Skip ahead a few years and Merrin finds himself assigned to an archeological dig in South Africa. The events that took place in Holland have shaken his faith pretty hard, and he’s not the optimistic young man of God that he used to be. The Church teams him up with a young priest named Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) where they work with the natives out of a local mission. The dig unveils a gorgeous old building that looks like an antiquated Catholic Church, but once Merrin and Francis explore a little more, the find that there’s a chamber underneath that was once used as a sacrificial ceremonial chamber to an evil deity of ancient lore.
While the priests are trying to figure out what to make out of the discovery, tensions are growing between the occupying British army forces and the natives. While some natives have converted to Christianity, many of them resent having a religion different then their own presented to them and because of this, the two opposing parties don’t always get along. When two would be bandits in the employ of the Queen wind up dead inside the uncovered church, the army is hell-bent on punishing the natives who did it despite the fact that Merrin insists that given the nature of the Christian symbolism behind the killings, it wasn’t one of them. To complicate matters, a young man who was unfortunately born a crippled named Cheche (Billy Crawford) has been taken into the mission hospital to recover from a beating. His recovery is speedy and Francis believes it to be a miracle, evidence of God’s hand working in Africa. Merrin isn’t so sure, and neither is Rachel (Clara Bellar), the Jewish doctor who works alongside the priests. Merrin will soon find out what it is exactly that’s causing the changes in Cheche, and when he does, what he learns will affect him for the rest of his life.
Dominion is a much smarter, tense film than Renny Harlin’s version. Harlin’s had it’s moments – there were some good jump scares, some genuine moments of tension, and considerably more traditional horror movie elements in there but it felt empty – Schrader’s film is anything but. It is definitely a slower film and it’s not as traditionally horrific as Harlin’s, but it is a much smarter story that gets into your head and sticks with you a bit as opposed to the disposable shocks of the alternate version. There are also some huge differences in terms of not only how the story plays out but also in terms of what characters are involved (there are some that are in Schrader’s version that aren’t in Harlin’s at all and vice versa) and to what extent their involvement affects the out come. The character development that happens in this film is stronger and more human, the opening scene with the Nazi executions plays out differently and because of that does a better job of explaining where Merrin is at once he gets to Africa, and the subplot with Father Francis is a nice contrast to Merrin’s story (and one that was more or less left out of Harlin’s film completely). The way that the story points involving Major Granville in this version also make a lot more sense and are handled with a much stronger sense of realism here than in the other movie.
The biggest flaw in the film is in the special effects. There are some extremely noticeable moments where very poor CGI rendering takes you right out of the atmosphere that the film creates and most of the time, it could have been avoided. The more obvious instances involve a snake and some hyenas – why real animals weren’t used here is a mystery, because the fake ones look like just that – fake animals. Other than that, Schrader turns in a very mature and subtle supernatural movie that doesn’t really function on the same level as Harlin’s flashier go for the gore approach. Both movies work for different reasons, but this one will stick with you longer and make you think about the concepts of true good and evil and the concepts of faith and the existence of God – something Harlin’s film doesn’t even try to do.