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Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Print E-mail
Monday, 27 October 2008
ImageWhen college student Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) dies after undergoing a church-ordained exorcism, the priest who performed the rite, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is put on trial for negligent homicide.  The District Attorney assigns Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) to the case, an attorney of faith whose beliefs will not dissuade him from leading a bold, ferocious prosecution.  The Archdiocese hires the firm run by Karl Gunderson (Colm Feore), who assigns top defense attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) to the case.  Bruner is an agnostic who has a reputation for getting unsavory characters off the hook.

As the trial proceeds, the film flashes back to tell the story of Emily Rose, a bright high school student in a rural family.  Awarded a full scholarship to a local university, Emily is off to a good start, attending classes and finding a boyfriend, when she is suddenly assaulted by unseen, seemingly demonic forces that physically attack her and turn her perceptions of the world around her into nightmarish visions.  Medical experts diagnose Emily with epilepsy and psychosis and prescribe drugs, but they have no absolutely no effect.  Emily’s attacks also do not fit the classic criteria of psychosis, as she is normal and lucid during periods when she is not beset by these violent attacks.

Bruner’s case does not proceed well, as Thomas leads a vigorous, no-holds-barred prosecution that refutes Father Moore’s religious certitude as nothing other than blind superstition that has resulted in extreme negligence and the tragic death of a young girl.  Bruner is initially skeptical about the nature of Emily’s condition but when she is awoken repeatedly at three in the morning (the “demonic witching hour” we are told), she begins to feel as if something is after her.  Father Moore tells her that she is in danger and that demonic forces do not want him to be able to tell Emily’s story.  As the defense is continually pummeled in court, Erin uncovers a witness who may be able to turn the jury’s perceptions around— Doctor Cartwright (Duncan Fraser), who was present during the exorcism and has been left deeply shaken by the experience.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is based on true events, but the specifics and finer points have been significantly altered in this account.  While told as a contemporary tale (though modern events are not specifically referred to), the actual events occurred not to in America, but in Germany to Anneliese Michel in 1976.  Unlike the film which has her attack and exorcism occur over a period of months, Michel was effected for eight years, from the age 16 to 23.  In addition to the main priest, the parents and an assisting priest were also charged and the series of exorcisms they held took place over a year.  While all the fine details have been stripped, away the core story remains. Director Scott Derrickson handles Emily’s visions particularly well.  The sequences that show her attacks and hallucinations are extremely potent and well visualized.  These sequences are the highlights of the film and are nightmarish and unsettling, enhanced with bold colors, active surround sound effects and Christopher Young’s prickly score.

The difficulty in making a film of this story is that there are two stories being told here— one of a dramatic court case pitting law and reason versus superstition, and the second one being a more traditional door-creaking horror tale.  Trying to merge the two without them undermining each other is a major challenge and one I’m not quite certain was overcome.  Visualizing Emily’s attacks stacks the deck, making it impossible for an audience to root for the prosecution, and weakens the ambiguity and doubt around Father Moore’s possible culpability.  By depicting these supernatural events, the filmmakers put us dead on Moore’s and Bruner’s sides, which (along with Campbell Scott’s too severe and unlikable characterization) strips away the complexity of the case and weakens the audience’s ability to carry the debate on, after the film is over.  To give the other side it’s due, you’d probably have to either eliminate the possession scenes or make them more aloof and naturalistic.  Since those scenes are so effective at giving the audience the heebie-jeebies, their loss would be highly detrimental and would weaken the visceral impact of the events.  Such a story, filmed without an exorcism, or depicted scenes of demonic possession, would certainly have been a disappointment to audiences, who would have been drawn to the material with the expectation of that kind of material, only to be bait-and-switched into sitting through a courtroom drama.

Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson (predating their collaboration on the superlative “John Adams” mini-series) are fine in the lead roles, but their characters are so isolated (he’s in a jail cell, she is single) that it makes their characters seem simplistic and lacking in dimension.  Wilkinson’s character feels as if it needs a few more meaty scenes to flesh out the character.  Since much of the story is presented after the events have reached their tragic conclusion, one could certainly have benefited from a scene or two showing how Moore first heard of the case, and how he was convinced to take it.  Emily’s character also feels a few scenes short of satisfactory development.  After an initial establishing scene featuring her receiving her college acceptance letter, all the rest of her scenes are of her being attacked or having visions.  The film cries out for a few scenes of normalcy to round out her character and give a greater sense of what was lost.  Her family, also seems more and more blank as the film goes on, and while they certainly would be believably traumatized by the events, we need to see them reacting directly to Emily and her incidents of possession, especially after the first incident.  We need to feel their desperation and understand their motivation for seeking an exorcism. 

The Blu-ray release is fine but visuals seem a tad soft at times, and a few shots (such as nighttime scenes with Laura Linney in her apartment) appear chalky.  The film’s colors are mostly muted by design, except for the intense visions, which are extremely saturated and densely colored.  The BD captures these tones perfectly, giving the more vividly colored scenes a tremendous impact.  Facial details and image stability are strong, except during camera movement, which seems a bit shaky and unstable during panning motions.  The TrueHD track is fantastic.  The soundscape makes frequent and strong usage of the surround channels for maximum fright.  Christopher Young’s score, full of Krzysztof Penderecki-esque pizzicato and cacophonous, violent string writing sounds terrific.  Dialogue is a smidge lower than the effects, which makes the violent sequences play extremely loudly.  Bass usage is bold and impressive.  Originally released with a PG-13 rating, the film is presented in its unrated edition here, running 122 minutes.

All the bonus materials are in standard definition.  The three featurettes total approximately 50 minutes and feature interviews with director Scott Derrickson, producer/co-screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman, and the primary cast members.  The filmmakers discuss the real-world origins of the story, but beyond mentions that it was a real case, they do not go into details about the discrepancies between their film and the actual events.  The production was intent on hiring A-level dramatic actors to help add credibility and weight to the courtroom story.  The “Casting the Movie” featurette explains how the filmmakers’ choices were arrived at, and particularly details the lengths they had to go to in order to secure Laura Linney’s participation and continued interest.  The intentions behind the creative use of color are discussed in “Visual Design” which features production designer David Brisbin.  The featurettes include clips from two scenes in the film, wherein a possessed Emily speaks to Father Moore in foreign tongues, presumably Latin.  While the film lets these scenes play without translation, the featurettes subtitle them in English, and it must be said, the subtitles improve the effect of those scenes, making one much more involved with what is going on in them.  The engaging audio commentary finds director Derrickson with much to say, and he discusses the production and his intentions in great detail.  The original theatrical trailer is unfortunately not included.

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