There are shaken troubles in the recesses of the human soul, where the famed Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) is forced to wander. In 1944 Holland, a Nazi officer forces him to choose the ten people of his flock who will die as retribution for a fellow officer’s death. He cannot. Down goes one woman. He still can’t. The Nazi officer orders all of them executed, before Merrin shouts at him to stop. He’ll point out who should die. And as he stands there, finger outstretched behind him toward the crowd, gunshots ring out on the soundtrack.

We already know Merrin as played by Max Von Sydow in the original Exorcist, where Linda Blair’s head turned and Mercedes McCambridge’s voice darkly proclaimed “an excellent day for an exorcism”. As the young Merrin, Skarsgard is at a unique advantage. Here is a man we had never considered before to even have a backstory. He was simply there to try to perform an exorcism so that a hysterical Ellen Burstyn could calm down, a life hopefully returned to normalcy once the devil was chased away. Here he is, however, digging his way through British East Africa in 1947, finding what appears to be a church. A fully-built church, fully buried. What a strange sight in this wide desert. Merrin’s archaeological digs obviously have purpose. First, it gets him away from what he sees now as the pressures of the cloth. How can he even lead a flock after he sentenced many of his own to death? Skarsgard’s face shows this well, a priest whose mind and talents are concentrated elsewhere. The question of where it is right to spread religion is now left to Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) who travels with Merrin to the African outpost of Derati where Emekwi (Eddie Osei) eagerly welcomes the young, naïve priest in the hopes that his sons will be able to attend the first religious school held there. Mann has that sharp hybrid look of worry and determination. He questions a native, Chuma (Andrew French) as to why a bull needs to be sacrificed, believing that cruelty is not necessary, but Merrin warns him off pursuing the topic further, explaining that the sacrifice is for the hope that Chuma’s cousin, Sebituana (Ilario Bisi-Pedro) will bear a male heir for the tribe.

But now, enough of the atmosphere, which includes the British presence lead by Major Granville (Julian Wadham) who can’t fathom even for the slightest moment that soldiers of his looted the church of valuable gems. Watching this Exorcist prequel is an act of pleasureable concentration. As Merrin further explores the unearthed church and the crippled young man (Billy Crawford) who hangs around on the outskirts of the dig, it becomes clear that he’s indeed the right character for an entire movie. Director Paul Schrader holds steadfast to his well-worn, but beloved theme of troubled persons trying to find something, anything, that will bring them relief in a world that will not have any of it. Merrin’s haunted memory of that fateful day in Holland becomes parallel with the British occupation, especially when Major Granville unexpectedly takes on that head Nazi role in a fit of rage over the death of two of his men. And then it becomes even more apparent, a question of major consideration: Is it better to be forcefully occupied by religion or another country?

Where Schrader corners Satan through Merrin’s encounter is ultimately what makes this a proper deeply layered character study. Schrader doesn’t want Merrin to be knocked around a few times in big special effect flashes. Both devil and priest must question each other as the fight goes on. Otherwise, it’s no fight at all. Plus, thinking back through where we’ve come during the course of the journey, the desert, the outpost, the differences in ideals between an older priest and a younger priest, it all makes absolute sense. For a man to truly be free from his guilt, he must do more than try to forget. It is Schrader’s ultimate set-piece in that regard; the devil incarnate on the screen, after only alluding to it for years. That one moment caps everything he’s written about and directed elsewhere. No doubt he will continue with his treasured themes in some manner, but it’s truly all here, all live and explosive with no charge left untriggered. Schrader is wise then in gradually letting it all build. The devil does not need to be shown right off if he is clearly in the thoughts of Merrin.

Without any regret, or any perceivable ill will toward those who knocked him out of his own picture, Schrader mounts an audio commentary on this release that’s thoughtful, considerate, quiet, and admiring. He spends time pointing out what is and isn’t CGI, and in a moment which recalls his days of being around in the heyday ‘70s, he says of a shot at the buried dome, “A shot like this is a shot like this.” Some computer effects were required as all the dirt couldn’t be real for budgetary purposes. His reminisces of cinematographer Storaro show a man deeply entrenched in light. Don’t look forward to an impassioned rant by him on being fired from a movie right in the midst of post-production. From the likes of this, he’s simply pleased that it’s been released in some form. A few short deleted scenes are also included, some which would have made the story a bit too obvious and some which are merely inconsequential to all that occurs. A gallery of photos is the last of it, and that’s all. Small, respectable, never overimportant.

“Dominion” isn’t outright horror, and a welcome relief from the days where shots are shorter than the hairs on our heads. Patience is key. Gradually, we learn. Then, the rewards come.

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