In 1944, a Nazi SS lieutenant named Kessel forces the parish priest of a small village in occupied Holland, Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård), to participate in arbitrary executions in retaliation for the murder of a German trooper in exchange for sparing the village.
In 1947, Merrin, whose faith was shattered by the incident, is an archaeologist in Derati, a remote area in the Turkana region of British Kenya excavating a Byzantine church built around the 5th century — long before Christianity had reached that region of Africa. He meets up with Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), a Maryknoll missionary appointed to ensure the church is not desecrated, and Major Granville (Julian Wadham), the British military officer overseeing the dig.
Making their way to Derati with Chuma (Andrew French), Merrin's translator and guide, Merrin introduces Francis to Rachel (Clara Bellar), a doctor who spent time in a concentration camp and is haunted by her experiences there, and Emekwi (Eddie Osei), an enthusiastic convert who provides accommodation for the two men. Merrin takes Francis on a tour of the dig site. Astonishingly, the church is in perfect condition, as though it had been deliberately buried immediately after its construction was completed.
On the site, Merrin meets a shy, physically-deformed young boy named Cheche (Billy Crawford), shunned and mistreated by the locals for fear that he is cursed. Although dissuaded by Chuma, Merrin attempts to make contact with Cheche, finally managing to bring the boy to Rachel for medical treatment.
Once the door is uncovered, Merrin, Francis, and Chuma go inside the church. Francis notices that this particular church is built in such a way as to restrain something beneath it. A hidden passageway leads them to a crypt containing a demonic idol - an ancient sanctuary where human sacrifice was performed. Merrin deduces that the church was built, not as a place of worship, but to seal this underground temple. On their way back, they find corpses of hyenas (who have appeared out of season) being eaten by a herd of cattle. The Turkana elders, thinking the church is evil, demand Merrin stop digging.
Francis contacts Granville to send a detachment to guard the dig from potential robbers, despite Merrin's objections. Two British soldiers attempting to loot some precious stones from the church are then found dead the next day (one was beheaded; the other crucified to the altar head downward). Despite the Christian symbolism used in the murders and the testimony of Jomo (Israel Aduramo), a Turkana warrior who had long been keeping a wary eye on the site, that the two men were affected by a strange madness that caused them to kill each other, Granville, blaming the Turkana, goes to town in a fit of rage demanding the purported culprits be given up, shooting a young woman in cold blood when the locals protest. The town is then placed under military surveillance.
Determined to stop the 'Christian evil' from spreading, Jomo breaks into the mission school and slaughters Francis' students - Emekwi's two sons - before he is shot on the spot by British soldiers. Emekwi bitterly questions if this is how God rewards those who keep faith with him.
Francis has a disturbing realization that Cheche's unusual recovery is not caused by God, as he had thought. Fearing for Cheche's soul, he considers baptising him; the boy accepts on the condition it be held at the church. Meanwhile, a guilt-ridden and despairing Granville commits suicide by shooting himself in the mouth.
The Turkana elders (via Chuma) demand that the church be reburied and Francis - who they hold responsible for the spread of the 'Christian evil' and the arrival of the British troops - and Cheche be handed over to them to be killed; when their demands are turned down, war between the two sides become inevitable.
Francis, assisted by Rachel, begins to baptise Cheche at the church; as they do so, however, the demon controlling Cheche assaults them. Realising an exorcism is in order, Francis leaves quickly to fetch his copy of the Roman Ritual. The demon removes Cheche's deformities and transforms him into a hairless, androgynous 'perfect' being; an earthquake erupts and seals off the entrance to the church. The Sergeant-Major (Ralph Brown), Granville's second-in-command who had assumed control of the troops after the latter's death, postpones Merrin's requests to clear the entrance for daybreak.
The next morning, Merrin and the British find Francis tied to a tree naked, shot with arrows. Taken back to the hospital to be looked after by Emekwi's wife, the dying Francis reveals to Merrin that Cheche is possessed and begs him to perform an exorcism. Another earthquake shifts the rocks, unblocking the church entrance just enough to allow Merrin to go inside. At the underground temple, Merrin finds Rachel – who runs away under a trance – and the possessed Cheche. Merrin rushes back to the infirmary to wear Francis' vestments, and goes back to the church to begin the exorcism. The demon offers Merrin a chance to rewrite his past, at which Merrin (in a hallucination) finds himself back in 1944 Holland: when he refuses to cooperate, Kessel instead has Merrin and all the villagers killed for his defiance.
When Merrin comes back to his senses, the demon mocks the futility of his attempt to change what happened. As Merrin recommences the exorcism, a supernatural aurora appears in the sky, the entranced Rachel attempts to kill herself, Emekwi violently beats his wife and the Turkana charge to battle. Despite the evil spirit's resistance, the exorcism succeeds. Cheche regresses to his former condition as the demon leaves his body and enters that of a hyena.
With the demon driven out of Derati, life returns to normal and the British detachment leave. One of the local elders, however, warns that the demon will pursue Merrin. Bidding farewell to Rachel and Cheche, now serving as Rachel's assistant at the infirmary, Merrin, who has regained his faith and is an active priest once more, leaves for Rome.Stellan Skarsgård as Father Lankester Merrin, a half-Dutch, half-English parish priest and scholar from Holland undergoing a crisis of faith ever since he was forced to participate in an arbitrary execution of his parishioners by the Nazis during World War II. He has subsequently devoted his time to archaeology after the war. Skarsgård reprises the same role in Exorcist: The Beginning.
Gabriel Mann as Father Francis, an idealistic missionary to the area appointed to ensure the sanctity of the excavated church is respected. He looks up to Merrin (having studied his works at the seminary) and tries to make him regain his faith in God.
Clara Bellar as Rachel Lesno, a doctor in the town hospital who had undergone a harrowing experience in a Nazi concentration camp.
Billy Crawford as Cheche, a physically-handicapped boy shunned and abused by the locals before Merrin gets him medical attention. He starts to recover from his disabilities once the demon possesses him, ultimately achieving physical perfection before the demon is exorcised.
Julian Wadham as Major Granville, a British army officer overseeing the Derati dig. A kindly man well-liked by his own troops, he begins to exhibit an uncharacteristic loss of temper after the mysterious deaths of two of his men in the church.
Ralph Brown as Sergeant-Major Harris, Granville's second-in-command. Unlike Granville, he is less kindly disposed towards the Turkana.
Israel Aduramo as Jomo, a local warrior who constantly observes the archaeological site.
Andrew French as Chuma, a local serving as an interpreter and guide for Merrin and the British.
Eddie Osei as Emekwi, a hotel owner and Christian convert who provides Merrin and Francis accommodations during their stay in Derati. He offers his two sons, James and Joseph, to Francis as students for his planned missionary school. Their death at the hands of Jomo leads him to question his faith.
Antonie Kamerling as Lieutenant Kessel, the SS officer who forces Merrin to decimate the villagers under his wing in retaliation for the murder of one of his men.
Mary Beth Hurt (uncredited) as the voice of possessed Cheche.
John Frankenheimer was originally hired as director for the project, but withdrew before filming started due to health concerns. He died a month later. Paul Schrader replaced him, agreeing to do the film because he found the script and the studio's approach intriguing. The film, titled Exorcist: The Beginning, was nearly completed and even had begun to be marketed (a teaser trailer had been released) when it was shelved by Morgan Creek Productions over concerns about the film's commercial viability.
Despite Schrader having faithfully directed the script the studio had developed, Morgan Creek (in Schrader's estimation) had a case of "buyer's remorse" upon seeing the result in rough cut form, believing that the film was too cerebral and lacking in overt "horror" scenes that would be expected from the franchise. The studio consequently replaced Schrader with Renny Harlin, originally with the plan to conduct a few re-shoots. Ultimately, the movie was re-written and re-shot altogether, albeit with many of the same plot points, locations and sets as the original production, but with a tone dramatically shifted to that of a more conventional horror film. Several cast members were retained for the more expensive second production, as was cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
After poor audience and critical response to Harlin's version, Morgan Creek decided to complete the Paul Schrader version on the potential of recouping what was now a compounded investment. The studio first hired an editor, Tim Silano, to assemble Schrader's version, but Silano insisted that Schrader be brought back to oversee the editing of his own material. Morgan Creek allocated $35,000 and a very short amount of time for Paul Schrader to finish his version..
The meager outlay provided by the studio to resume the film's final stage of post-production resulted in a number of compromises. Specifically, Schrader was not given enough money to conduct ADR, to bring cinematographer Vittorio Storaro back to perform the film's color timing (forcing he and Silano to approximate it themselves), nor to commission an original score for the entire film. Instead, the score was developed piecemeal, with fourteen minutes (including a central theme) being composed without payment by Angelo Badalamenti. The final twenty minutes of the film were scored by the American metal band Dog Fashion Disco (the unusual choice stemming from Schrader's son's affection for the group), while the balance of the score - about an hour's worth - was recycled from Trevor Rabin’s work for the Harlin version. In addition to contributing compositions, Dog Fashion Disco also "finessed" the score as a whole to give it a unity despite its disparate sources.
Warner Bros. released Schrader's version theatrically under the title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (since Exorcist: The Beginning was used by the Harlin version) as a very limited release (110 screens) in May 2005, followed later that year by a DVD release.
While William Peter Blatty, the author and screenwriter of The Exorcist, described Dominion as "a handsome, classy, elegant piece of work", critical reaction to the film has nonetheless been mixed to negative. Many critics stated that it is only slightly better than Harlin's version, holding a rating of 30% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 55 out of 100 on Metacritic, whereas Exorcist: The Beginning holds a rating of 11% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 30 out of 100 on Metacritic.
Nonetheless, the good reviews Dominion did get were much more positive than those of Harlin's version. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it three stars out of four, and wrote that it "does something risky and daring in this time of jaded horror movies: it takes evil seriously." Leslie Felperin of Variety magazine wrote that this film is "intelligent, quietly subversive" and "Schrader has delivered a 100% Paul Schrader film, drenched in the spiritual and moral angst that's watermarked his career from Taxi Driver (as a writer) to Auto Focus (as a director)."
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly said that "Schrader's film is a notch better than Harlin's, but when you boil out the demon feathers, it's the same damn movie." Scott Tobias of The Onion's A.V. Club said that "Skarsgård [gives] a quietly mesmerizing performance", and that "Schrader's movie isn't particularly scary, but 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."
David Edelstein of the magazine Slate said the film is "a good, thoughtful horror picture, and [very] close to being a very good one." Brent Simon of IGN gave the film a score of 4 out of 10, saying: "The overall feeling Dominion gives off is one of rootless languor. You keep waiting for someone or something to show up and seize control of the picture, but it never really happens until the final confrontation, which feels like it might as well come from a different movie. It's not blood or gore that's missing, its context; Dominion is too polite and urbane to frighten.
Director Erik Kristopher Myers, who was the first to ever review the film in 2005, wrote, "The curious thing about the Exorcist franchise is that you have three films following the same narrative thread, but none of the chapters feel as though they belong to a greater whole. Each one plays too differently from the previous installment, destroying any sense of genuine continuity beyond names or locations. Schrader’s film is the first to synthesize the elements of each one, whether intentionally or otherwise, and presents us with an Exorcist that owes as much to Friedkin as it does to Boorman and Blatty. At the same time, it also manages to achieve its own identity while still being directly linked to The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic and The Exorcist III. No other film in the series has a genuine marriage to each of its partners the way that Schrader’s does."
The film was released on DVD October 25, 2005 by Warner Home Video and included deleted scenes, photo gallery, and an audio commentary by director Paul Schrader.
On October 10, 2006, the film was released with The Exorcist, The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Exorcist III and Exorcist: The Beginning in a box set titled The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology.
On September 23, 2014, the film was released on Blu-ray as part of the Blu-ray version of The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology. Unlike the DVD release, the film is only available in the box set. There are no plans to release the film as a standalone release at this time.