The Exorcism of Emily Rose
It’s impossible to walk into The Exorcism of Emily Rose without feeling the hot, pea-soup breath of that other possession flick on the back of your neck. For better and worse, William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist is the standard measure of possession movies, and as spooky-religious as some non-Catholics ever ventured in a movie theater. It is also a sly hybridization of the old-fashioned atmospheric horror flick with dramatic goresploitation, a highly stylized mix that Emily Rose avoids the way demon-possessed young women shun holy water. Instead, director Scott Derrickson wants to impress his movie’s factual origins and opens with the truly distressing title card: this film is based on a true story.
Emily Rose is inspired by the brief life of a young German woman named Anneliese Michel, a University of Wurzburg student with mental and physical afflictions diagnosed and unsuccessfully treated as epilepsy but which the church eventually officially deemed possession. She died during the exorcism ritual in 1976 and the attending priest stood trial for her death. It’s a story ready-made for big-screen misreading.
These days the documentary is the medium of choice for real-life narrative, and as a result many fact-based dramas are inflated into mawkishly unreal multiplex events (see Black Hawk Down, Catch Me if You Can, and Beyond the Sea). Movies that successfully handle their true-life sources do so by finding a film language sympathetic to the story—see Larry Clark’s crotch-eye worldview in Bully. Derrickson eases into his true-story account with a genuinely moody opening sequence: A car pulls up to a farmland home just after dawn on a chilly winter morning. The driver steps out, a second-story curtain pulls back to reveal a man looking down at the arrival. After nobody answers a few raps at the door, the driver turns to walk around back when the door creaks open and an uncertain voice asks, “You the medical examiner?”
Such classic thriller paces only partially hamstring this movie, which opens with the titular heroine (Jennifer Carpenter) already dead and her family priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), charged with criminally negligent homicide. The bulk of Emily Rose’s faults arrive in its main story—Moore’s trial. The archdiocese’s legal team assigns Erin Bruner (Laura Linney as yet another brassy, no-BS counsel) to convince Moore to accept a plea agreement offered by the district attorney’s tough, churchgoing prosecutor (Campbell Scott in salt- and-pepper hair and moustache combo topping his clenched-butt woodenness). Moore refuses a guilty plea to avoid jail time explicitly because he wants to testify and tell Emily’s story, turning the movie into a clichéd courtroom drama overripe with testimonial flashbacks to Emily’s deteriorating condition—complete with people’s faces melting into Munch-ian screams and storm clouds forming evil specters in the night sky. It winds up feeling like the most Scooby-Doo Law and Order episode ever.
And were Emily Rose content to be just such a genre hodgepodge, it could slither by as a forgetful distraction. Instead, it actually aspires to tackle a crisis of faith, and in doing so the wheels come completely off as it resorts to more ham-fisted clichés—the backward ways of country folk, the hardened cynicism of city dwellers, the serene spirituality of the exotic (Shohreh Aghdasloo’s doctor of alternative medical theories)—than beads on a rosary. And it’s difficult to stomach sober detours into the divine when the plot stumbles over Lifetime movie hurdles, such as the agnostic having her disbelief tested. Plus the Aramaic- and Latin-ranting, bug-eating, bodily convulsive, and wild-eyed possessed Rose basically looks like a really skeezy Selma Blair.
Which is not to say that religion doesn’t belong in the cineplex, just that if you’re going to go there, don’t insult your potential audience. This story hinges on the idea that this young woman chooses to suffer through her eventually fatal predicament so that doubters, disbelievers, and the lapsed can see that evil does exist. It’s a basic logical tenet, but the movie never breaches the interior mind-wrestling that accompanies it. A leap of faith is just that—a surrender of control. And The Exorcism of Emily Rose never considers wandering into that precarious post-leap no man’s land where you can’t tell if the feeling of weightlessness is due to belief’s buoyancy or if it’s merely taking a long time to hit bottom.