Emily less horror, more drama

Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) takes a stroll in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) takes a stroll in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of sonypictures.com
Surprisingly, The Exorcism of Emily Rose isn’t very terrifying.
Surprisingly, The Exorcism of Emily Rose isn’t very terrifying.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of sonypictures.com

Film Review: Exorcism of Emily Rose @ Capitol 7

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a curious piece of work. Marketed as a horror movie, it is in fact a courtroom melodrama. The plot concerns the trial of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), a priest charged with the murder of Emily Rose, who died as the result of a failed exorcism Moore conducted.

The movie mainly deals with issues of faith. It is about the extent of our willingness to believe. The prosecutor in the trial (Campbell Scott) is a confirmed Methodist, who feels that faith is not an issue in the trial. He claims that one must look at the facts: Emily’s condition was symptomatic of mental illness and her family avoided hospital treatment, instead allowing a priest to perform an archaic ritual on the weak girl, leading to her death. This is all heady, theological material and the consequent debate, not the more shocking aspects of the story, is the heart of the film.

As a horror movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose doesn’t really work. There are a few effective sequences, such as when Emily sees the faces of everyone around her mutating into demons, and the final exorcism scene. But these sections of the movie are minimal and played in flashback. The flashbacks make up barely a third of the running time, and when they do appear on screen they’re in isolation. There’s little time to build up suspense or atmosphere in these sequences, so they’re played mainly for shock value. Unfortunately, there is little here that hasn’t been seen before, either in superior films on the same subject, or in Emily Rose’s overplayed trailers.

The movie is driven by the trial and any suspense generated by the film comes from this. It isn’t boring, but it isn’t particularly original either.

Yet somehow the movie works surprisingly well. Part of this is due to the strange juxtaposition of genres by co-writer/director Scott Derrickson, but mainly it’s the result of some terrific performances from a solid cast of actors who are really too talented to be working with this material.

Scott Derrickson and his writing partner Paul Harris Boardman have been credited with two movies. They wrote the screenplay for Urban Legend 2 and made the fourth Hellraiser movie, a direct-to-video release. Their background is in pulp horror filmmaking and it shows in Emily Rose: while the film is well-paced and shot, the dialogue is weak. It’s minimal, unnatural, and mainly just functional—used only to move the story forward—although, mercifully the “there’s no injection for the devil” line from the trailer did not make it to the final cut.

The cast lifts the writing out of its humble origins. Laura Linney punctuates her lines with gasps and her emphasis brings the character emotions that were clearly not on the page.

Tom Wilkinson adopts a flawless American accent and brings a moral gravity to Father Moore that transforms him into a tragic character.

Finally, the underrated character actor Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger, The Spanish Prisoner) tackles the role of prosecutor Ethan Thomas. Scott takes what could have easily been a one-note antagonist and makes him an intriguingly conflicted character: a man caught between his belief system and his job as an impartial prosecutor.

So what do you get when you mix courtroom drama, pulp horror, mediocre screenwriting, average directing, and strong acting? Surprisingly enough, a decent movie. It may be muddled, but it is definitely the best exorcism film not made by William Peter Blatty, writer of The Exorcist and writer/director of the underrated Exorcist III.

At the very least, it is dramatically better than either Renny Harlin’s or Paul Schrader’s recent prequels to The Exorcist. The movie is smart and well-acted, but by no means a masterpiece. It’s not even very scary, but at least it’s a movie that has something to say.

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