The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Director: Scott Derrickson. Cast: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter, Campbell Scott, Joshua Close, Duncan Fraser, Mary Beth Hurt, Colm Feore, Henry Czerny, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Kenneth Welsh, Andrew Wheeler, Marilyn Norry. Screenplay: Paul Horris Boardman and Scott Derrickson.

Photo © 2005 Screen Gems/Lakeshore Entertainment
Emily Rose was a vessel for a message, and so too is her film, though it's easier to feel the lurking presence of these "messages" than to tease out exactly what they are saying. Within the terms set by The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and by the heavily reconfigured "true story" on which the film is based, midwestern lass Emily Rose became the conduit and repository of six separate demons, including Lucifer himself, asserting his might and his arbitrary wickedness through the contorted body of this girl, though no one can quite explain why. Emily and her family are already devout believers before the Devil and his foulest manifestations swoop down, upon, and inside her. I suppose the contest for a soul already beholden to Jesus is too delicious a prospect for the demons to turn down, and the very inexplicability of Emily as a site for this battleground must be rewarding to their diabolical perversity.

Reader, I really don't know. It is rather remarkable, though, how even in its quotidian and often ham-handed way, The Exorcism of Emily Rose gets you to wondering about the logics, motives, and implications of demonic possession—in other words, taking the possession itself for granted. Emily is already dead by the time the film begins, killed in the quick aftermath of a botched exorcism, and surely this accounts for part of why the "fact" of demonic usurpation is so coolly assumed as a certainty by this film, and quickly enough by its audience. Another reason is that all of the film's eggs—as drama, as "true" crime, as freak-show entertainment, as theological argument—require that Emily's possession be taken for granted, at the very least as a compelling possibility. But a third reason is that, in cultural terms, we seem to need this kind of possession narrative as a rare meeting ground, schlocky but deeply invested, where the snorting skepticism of non-believers and the earnest keepers of faith come together for a pas-de-deux (pas-de-dieu?) that isn't immediately absorbed into divisive sociopolitical debate. One doesn't imagine that a story like this is quite the first choice of a Christian propagandist, watching as the complex and deeply felt matters of faith are translated into Guignol shocks and stormy-night clichés. Same, too, for the skeptics. If it's so easy not to entertain the very idea of spiritual forces, what accounts for the durable popularity and the contagious loneliness and fear that emanate from a picture like this?

As filmmaking, The Exorcism of Emily Rose isn't a patch on the solemn and remarkably controlled Exorcist. Despite having recruited Clint Eastwood's trusty cinematographer Tom Stern to give forth his forte of frosty grays and inky shadows, many other shots are tackily imprisoned in neon reds, exaggerated angles, and flashy handheld and stop-motion set-ups that demean the very idea of craft. The aggressively anonymous exteriors all but scream out the use of bargain-basement Canadian locations, and the interiors are no more persuasive. The sound design, including Christopher Young's typically permissive score, allows all manner of wild flights and stentorian accents; it's not that these febrile violins and loud crescendos aren't effective as fright machines, but that they aren't effective as anything but fright machines. As a tawdry time-killer, Emily Rose is never less than tolerable and is often quite punchy, even when it's silly. But the thinness of its devices really work against it once the screenplay and the acting start uncovering something serious and considerable beneath the premise.

As whole-heartedly as the film goes in for its own gruesome spectacles—some of them truly unnerving, as when Emily Rose's boyfriend wakes to find her twisted and frozen on the dormitory floor, or when Lucifer literally bends her backward in the nave of a University Chapel (helpfully designated "University Chapel" by those bozo production designers)—the bulk of The Exorcism of Emily Rose transpires in a courtroom, as sporadically principled defense attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) attempts to exonerate Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) of charges of negligent homicide, leveled at him when Emily died under his care, and fortified upon the revelation that she had stopped seeking medical or scientific remedies while he administered his archaic rituals. Either through wit or inexperience, director Scott Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman avoid most of the in-and-out layers of the legal process. This means we are spared a lot of filler material where Linney ponders her case file and then startles with inner amazement as she has a Big Breakthrough. It also means that both she and especially Campbell Scott, as the public prosecutor Ethan Thomas, keep having to know things in court that we can't imagine how they know: not moments after being faced with the unannounced evidence of Emily Rose speaking in tongues on a tape-recorder, Ethan Thomas has some hard-witting questions about the body's dual set of vocal chords and the throat singers of the Himalayas at his sudden disposal.

But there's something that gets released and flexed in The Exorcism of Emily Rose that would probably get muffled beneath a more scrupulous script, and that is the basic antagonism between belief and doubt as they are publicly lived. We spend precious little time in the private homes or lifeworlds of any of the first- or second-tier characters, and none at all in the case of Ethan Thomas, though we hear he is a committed churchgoer and family man. What little time we spend with Erin outside the courtroom—where Linney truly excels, nailing her closing speech to the jury and sounding eminently more hireable than she was in Primal Fear—is either closely tied to the case or given over to a variably effective subplot where she, too, is seemingly taunted by the devil. (Never mind that Father Moore's ultimate case for why God allowed Emily to die would also seem to suggest that Lucifer would endorse rather than harass this trial.)

In a simple and freeing move, Emily Rose casts the believer as Father Moore's opponent and the agnostic as his advocate, rather than assigning these roles in the more obvious reverse geometry; moreover, these character traits are expressed in credible, subtly performed ways inside the trial itself, a real step forward from the clunky, expository scenes that open up the film. As religious faith has become more and more of a public concern, something to be trumpeted or substantiated rather than simply felt or lived, it makes a certain kind of sense that The Exorcism of Emily Rose casts its tug of war in such public terms, and that the courtroom, where so many screen dramas are instantly banalized, becomes a specific and interesting forum for exploring the concept of "reasonable doubt" in both its theological and judicial definitions. Yes, the movie's climax, however intriguing as a dramatic choice—it gives Mary Beth Hurt another very good moment as the presiding judge—is also a hasty retreat from really saying anything definitive about these heady themes. Telltale signs around the picture, such as the fact that Emily becomes prey to the devil only after she leaves her rural family for a college education (read: an exposure to secular knowledge), imply that The Exorcism of Emily Rose isn't just co-optable by the most zealous right-wing fundamentalists but that it may even be designed, in these post-Passion times, with that very audience in mind. Then again, there are competing omens that the film's deepest allegiance is really to B-level cinéma du shockeroo; like The Forgotten, which was last September's entry in Classy Actresses Testing the Slums, there's a great, unexpected auto accident, included strictly for its own sake. All in all, this isn't a picture I trusted all that much, and most of what I admired or appreciated in it—the performances by Linney and Scott, the evacuation of Emily as anything but a courtroom projection, the palpable push and pull of skepticism and belief—I also felt as pyrrhic victories: by actors redeeming a flawed script, by screenwriters unable to see Emily as anything but a beatific victim, by a film that tends to stumble the further it strays from its central dichotomy. Still, even at its lowest moments, there are reasons why The Exorcism of Emily Rose works as well as it does, and why it recovers itself rather capably even when its foundations start to shake. B–

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