Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Jennifer Carpenter needs regular exorcism in ‘Emily Rose.’
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, and Jennifer Carpenter. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson. Rated PG-13.
Don’t Stop Believin’

Possession is nine-tenths of the law in a better-than-expected exorcism movie.


Two thoughts were uppermost in my mind as I watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The first was, “Wow, this movie is a piece of crap!” The other was, “Wow, there are some great actors in this piece of crap!” In fact, the actors were so great that I had to re-think the first thought.

The movie’s advertisements are touting it as “based on a true story,” so here’s the real one. In 1968 a 16-year-old German girl named Anneliese Michel began showing the first signs of the condition that would claim her life eight years later. Doctors diagnosed her as a “grand mal” epileptic; after several years of traditional medicine proved ineffectual, her parents turned to religion for help. Priests under the direction of the local bishop started performing rites of exorcism over her in 1975 but failed to save her life. The young woman’s parents and two clerics were charged with manslaughter and eventually convicted, though they were given light sentences. It remains the only officially acknowledged case of demonic possession, although the German Catholic Church soon afterward rescinded the acknowledgment. (Things like this encourage conspiracy theorists.) The trial caused a sensation, especially in the wake of the 1974 German release of William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist.

Ah yes, that movie. That overrated but still pretty good horror flick spawned several sequels of its own, plus innumerable rip-offs to this day that range from silly to sillier. The subject of exorcism has, no surprise, proven to be catnip for filmmakers. (I’m surprised that we haven’t had a Jewish exorcism movie yet.) The ritual is sexy stuff, and the feeling of communing with primal evil generates a level of fear that werewolves and space aliens and ghosts and faceless mute slashers with big knives can’t. The Exorcist tapped into that fear with consummate skill and continues to overshadow all its imitators.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose distinguishes itself from the pack by casting itself as a courtroom drama centering around the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), a college student hailing from a nowhere town in New England. On trial for her death is Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the priest who performed the exorcism. He’s being charged with negligent homicide after encouraging Emily to stop taking her psychiatric medication. Defending him is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), a hard-charging lawyer who sees the case as a ticket to a senior partnership in her firm.

Most exorcism movies wind up being commercials for the Catholic Church, but this one to its credit plays with the element of doubt much more than most others. Emily’s visions are clearly presented as hallucinations. Her frightening convulsions all remain within the realm of physical possibility — no spinning heads or levitating — and there are medical explanations for everything that happens, including the unearthly voice she uses when she’s supposedly in the demon’s grip. The rational point of view is represented most fiercely by a soft-spoken, devoutly Methodist prosecutor, played by Campbell Scott as a man who’s frankly offended at all the talk of demonic possession. Erin counters him by arguing that Emily was indeed possessed, but she pursues that argument purely as a desperate legal stratagem, throwing up gray clouds of doubt to encourage the jury to let her client off the hook.

All this doubt doesn’t immunize the film from some of the subgenre’s dumber excesses. When Erin pins her hopes for acquittal on the testimony of a corroborating witness, you know that said witness will turn up dead in mysterious circumstances before he takes the stand. Also, the story resorts to the extremely hokey device of having all the most sinister supernatural occurrences take place at exactly 3 a.m. (This detail got that old matchbox 20 song running through my head. Thanks a lot, Emily.)

What really saves this film is a cast that plays the material for all it’s worth. Even the tiny roles are attended to by the likes of Mary Beth Hurt as a hard-ass judge and Shohreh Aghdashloo as an expert witness for the defense. Wilkinson brings his trademark gravitas here, and Linney’s intelligence and commanding presence are good to have, as her character maintains a skeptical eye on everything, even when possibly supernatural stuff starts happening around her. As for newcomer Carpenter, she surely deserves some sort of award just for twisting her body into the agony-inducing poses that we see here. The scares in this movie come from her performance rather than from Scott Derrickson’s solid but uninspired direction. Unified by their quality and remarkable seriousness of purpose, the actors make The Exorcism of Emily Rose a better piece of schlock horror than it has any right to be.

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