The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Director : s Scott Derrickson
Screenplay : Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Laura Linney (Erin Bruner), Tom Wilkinson (Father Moore), Campbell Scott (Ethan Thomas), Jennifer Carpenter (Emily Rose), Colm Feore (Karl Gunderson), Joshua Close (Jason), Kenneth Welsh (Dr. Mueller), Duncan Fraser (Dr. Cartwright), JR Bourne (Ray), Mary Beth Hurt (Judge Brewster), Henry Czerny (Dr. Briggs), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Dr. Adan)
I don't think I'm giving anything anyway by disputing up front the conviction of cowriter/director Scott Derrickson that The Exorcism of Emily Rose presents evenly both sides of the film's central debate about the validity of a Midwestern college studen's supposed demonic possession. Most of the film takes place inside a courtroom where two opposing sides debate whether Emily Rose was possessed or whether she was simply suffering from psychotic epileptic disorder, and from a rhetorical standpoint the two arguments are evenly matched. However, the film's visuals and virtually all of the action that takes place outside the courtroom confers absolutely that this was genuine case of possession.
This one-sidedness does not necessarily make The Exorcism of Emily Rose a bad film, despite the sometimes condescending arguments of critics who pride themselves on hip open-mindedness that stops well short of anything that possibly reeks of religious conviction. I think it is the centrality of the courtroom in the film that lends it an air of propagandistic intent; if it had simply been another straightforward possession story, its detractors could have written it off as fantasy, instead of feeling threatening that the filmmakers are trying to push a "message." Some even seem to feel that the film is making a dangerous and possibly influential argument against medical science that threatens to kick us back to Stone Age practices of drilling holes in people's heads to release demons that cause migraines (although, to be fair, the film does emphasize that it's based on a true story, albeit one that took place in Bavaria in the 1970s). It's the leftwing version of conservative nuts who think that the Harry Potter series somehow constitutes a genuinely threatening affront to Christianity.
Derrickson's film is rooted squarely in a tradition of demon-possession movies that usually posits a single Catholic priest as the much put-upon hero, which allows the movie to celebrate the heroism of a man of faith while also criticizing the higher institution of organized religion. The Exorcism of Emily Rose does exactly that, by contrasting a dedicated and fiercely determined, yet gently paternal priest named Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) with the archdiocese, who is more interesting in its public relations than getting out "the truth."
Father Moore has been arrested for negligent homicide after a girl died following an attempted exorcism. He is defended by an ambitious, on-the-rise lawyer named Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an agnostic who doesn't believe in demons, yet uses Father Moore's sincerity to defend him in court. Father Moore is being prosecuted by Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), who is identified as being a strong churchgoer, yet balks at the inclusion of anything other than cold hard facts in the courtroom.
Ethan is the first of the film's problems. He is a potentially interesting character, given than he is a strong religious man who nevertheless finds himself mocking and deriding his own belief system in the courtroom in order to win a conviction (he is the structural opposite of Erin, whose involvement in the case leads her to rethink her agnosticism). Doesn't he have any kind of crisis of conscience? Does this in any way affect his personal beliefs? We'll never know because we never see Ethan outside the courtroom, except for a brief, contentious scene in a bar, and Campbell Scott plays him as a one-dimensional, pretentious, huffed-up prig. Why make the point that he is a devout churchgoer, then, unless to play on cheap irony?
The film's other main problem is that it overdoes its most emotional moments. Derrickson, whose only other feature film is the straight-to-video sequel Hellraiser: Inferno, has some effective visual tricks up his sleeve, and he pulls off a number of creepily effective sequences, especially when Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) first finds herself "under attack" by dark forces. He gooses us with brief glimpses of hellish imagery -- people's faces melting into demonic screams and paintings that suddenly bleed into blackish agony. Several compositions and uses of lighting immediately bring to mind the work of Dario Argento, and his use of silence is often nerve-wracking. However, when pushed, Derrickson goes too heavily for the jugular, especially with the exorcism itself, which somehow winds up inside a barn with crazed horses bursting out of their stalls. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is at its most frighteningly effective when it is more restrained; otherwise, it threatens to devolve into hysterical silliness.
Yet, even with these flaws, there is much to recommend about the film, particularly in the way it melds together the courtroom thriller and the horror film to form a new approach to questioning issues of faith. Some of the courtroom histrionics are a bit hackneyed, as virtually all movie courtroom scenes are, but at least you can feel the pulse of ideas beating underneath. It's not a perfect film, and it will certainly rub some viewers the wrong way, particularly those who can't stand any intrusion of genuine religious belief into a mainstream movie ("Save that stuff for the cheapie direct-to-video Christian outlets and out of the secular mainstream," I can hear them saying). When we look back years from now, The Exorcism of Emily Rose may very well stand as one of the central movies illustrating the depth of the so-called red state/blue state divide.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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