Much has been written about the unprecedented circumstances that led to the creation of The Exorcist's two prequels. After hiring Paul Schrader, the serious-minded writer of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation Of Christ, to continue the much-imitated franchise, the producers were so flummoxed by Schrader's results that they commissioned Renny Harlin to make another movie. Harlin gave them what they wantedtwisted bodies, backward crosses, and pea soup by the gallonbut Exorcist: The Beginning displeased audiences and bean-counters alike. The two movies overlapboth take place just after World War II, and both involve the discovery of a 5th-century church found buried in British East Africa. But most telling is the key flashback in which a Nazi officer forces a priest (Stellan Skarsgård, in both films) to choose one of the inhabitants of his Dutch town for execution as retribution for the killing of a German soldier. When Skarsgård refuses, the officer asks for 10 victims instead, resulting in a massacre that shakes Skarsgård's faith and leads him to give up the cloth, convinced that the officer's sadistic taunt ("God is not here today, priest!") might actually be true.
In the Harlin version, this scene occurs in middle of the movie, sandwiched between bloodthirsty hyenas and bouncing beds, but in Schrader's superior Dominion, it's right there front and center, the crux of a powerful allegory on faith following the Nazi atrocities. As the title suggests, Skarsgård has reason to wonder whether the Earth is still God's territory or forever the Devil's domain, and his crisis is the world's. Not exactly the stuff of splatterific genre filmmaking, but the decision to hire Schrader, who was raised Calvinist and has always grappled with theological issues in print and in film, counts as a happy accident of studio filmmaking. Schrader's movie isn't particularly scarya controlled, low-level creepiness is about all he can managebut it's more substantive than The Exorcist and its sequels, because it takes demon possession out of head-spinning literalism and considers evil as something more real and commonplace.
After the opening scene, Dominion follows Skarsgård to Africa, where his religious background and archeological expertise make him the ideal candidate to explore a mysterious Christian Byzantine church which was buried as soon as it was erected. A series of strange, horrific events unfold after the church is unearthed, including the possession of a local handicapped boy (Billy Crawford) and escalating tensions between Turkana tribesmen and the British colonials called in to guard the site. All this hokum leads to the inevitable showdown of Good vs. Evil, but Schrader stages it less like a battle than like a conversation, one priest's serious attempt to come to terms with the horrors that have invaded his consciousness. In a way, Dominion is as much a Last Temptation sequel as an Exorcist prequel: Skarsgård, in a quietly mesmerizing performance, grapples with guilt and resentment on the bumpy road to salvation, and the movie turns on a similar scene in which his destiny is re-imagined. It may not have been what the producers had in mind, but they asked for a Paul Schrader movie, and that's exactly what he delivered.