The Exorcism of Emily Rose tells a fascinating story – based, to some degree on fact – involving a college student who may have been
possessed by demons. Or, in a conflicting view, she may have suffered from epilepsy and psychosis. The girl, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), and her family believed she was possessed, so they asked their priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), to perform an exorcism. Unfortunately, she died afterward, her body battered in several locations. Father Moore is arrested and charged with negligent homicide.
The local D.A. wants to make sure the prosecuting attorney is someone of faith, so they hire Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a proud churchgoer, to make the case against Father Moore. Defending him (under duress and the promise of full partnership from her boss) is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an admitted agnostic. Thomas presents a strong case, suggesting that Emily suffered from violent hallucinations brought on by epileptic seizures. By encouraging her to go off her medication – and by not getting her immediate medical treatment – Father Moore was therefore directly responsible for her death. The priest tells Erin that there’s more to the story. He firmly believes that the girl had been possessed and, more importantly, she herself believed she was possessed. The question is whether or not the jury can be convinced that something supernatural happened.
I always approach movies about exorcism with apprehension. More often than not, they’re either an excuse to revel in shock-horror gore or they’re an exercise in easy Catholic-bashing. Classic though it may be, I hated The Exorcist because it was, in my eyes, a very angry film that made me sick to my stomach with its exploitation of the Linda Blair character. I also remember a film from several years ago called Stigmata, in which Patricia Arquette started having violent hallucinations and suddenly developed wounds on her body. Gabriel Byrne played the priest trying to prove (or disprove) that she had the stigmata. It was an interesting film until it went off the rails, suggesting that the Catholic Church would order a priest to kill the woman. I ended up seeing the movie twice, both times feeling really annoyed by the portrayal.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is better than that, though. It’s more of a courtroom drama than a horror flick. It’s also a rare film that actually stops to consider faith. When Thomas mounts a hard-to-refute medical case for the prosecution, Erin initially feels that the case is hopeless. Then she stops to reconsider; if Emily and Father Moore both believed sincerely in possession, then wouldn’t his actions be consistent and appropriate? If she felt her body had been taken over by demons, wouldn’t she naturally request a priest to rid her of them, just as a doctor would treat a medical problem?
The story’s central debate certainly provokes thought for those of us in the audience. Many of us at some point have a feeling that we’ve been led to a particular moment in our lives. Perhaps we feel that we’ve been called into a certain occupation, or miraculously brought together with our soul mate, or may even have suffered some setback as a “wake-up call” in order to get our lives back on track. Those feelings are what this movie is about. Father Moore repeatedly expresses his desire to “tell Emily’s story” and it’s clear that the girl may have felt that things happened to her for a reason.
Tom Wilkinson is terrific as the soft-spoken but passionate priest. It’s rare to see a positive portrayal of a Catholic priest on screen, and the actor brings a lot of dignity to the role. The courtroom scenes are well written, incorporating a number of intriguing viewpoints on the nature of faith. Laura Linney and Campbell Scott do solid work here, arguing their characters’ positions in a way that sucks us in. One thing I responded to is that Linney and Campbell are not just playing lawyers; they are playing thinking, feeling people who just happen to be lawyers. Linney nicely conveys the way Erin’s agnosticism gradually gives way to the possibility of possibilities, while Scott shows Ethan Thomas’s equal dedication to faith and fact (although I wish he had more screen time to really explore this concept). The caliber of actors goes a long way toward elevating the movie.
One flaw is that the film plays up the events of the exorcism in order to be more commercially accessible to the horror crowd. Snakes appear out of nowhere, a violent wind starts whipping, a mysterious shadowy figure lurks about. None of this stuff was really needed. The courtroom scenes, which raise questions of demonic possession and saving faith, are far more effective than the usual fright stuff. It would possible to make a chilling exorcism scene without all the theatrics. The idea of demons possessing someone’s body is creepy enough. A little restraint can sometimes be more powerful than a big show. At least no one’s head spins around and there is no vomiting of pea soup, however. The plot also takes the occasional shortcut, such as conveniently (and unbelieveably) dispatching with one key character at a moment when his absence is key to the drama.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is better and smarter than I expected it to be. It uses the horror genre to say something and, despite the elements mentioned above that could have been stronger, it generally succeeds. The ending goes beyond the guilt or innocence of Father Moore. What happens in that courtroom is all about the things people feel but cannot say, the things they believe but cannot prove. The trial plays out in a way that makes sense and gives you a little something to ponder about on your way out the door.
( out of four)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is rated PG-13 for thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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