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Exorcism of Emily Rose, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 09 September 2005
In 1976, a ritual exorcism was performed at her request on young German woman Annaliese Michel. She had begun to complain of demonic possession in 1970; in 1973 (the year “The Exorcist” was released) her parents asked Catholic authorities that an exorcism be performed. They were turned down. However, in 1975, an exorcism began which continued for almost a year, when Annaliese died. Her parents and the parish priest were tried for negligent homicide. The results were much the same as shown in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” which is loosely based on the Annaliese Michel case.

It’s so loosely based on real events that the little summing-up texts that follow the end of the movie should not be considered to be accurate in any regard. Nor should the movie overall.

Scott Derrickson directs from a script he co-wrote with his partner, Paul Harris Boardman. They seem to have become the go-to guys for serious—or at least, judging by this one, solemn—horror subjects. The two wrote “Darkness Falling,” which had some release, also the unreleased “The Church of the Holy Ghost,” “Mystic” and “Future Tense,” They also wrote “Ghosting” and “Hellraiser: Inferno,” both of which Derrickson also directed.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” was shot in deep, moody colors by Tom Stern, who also shot “Mystic River” and last year’s “Million Dollar Baby,” taking the Oscar home for his work on the latter. Colors are dark even when very strong, and he and production designer David Brisbin clearly favor deep orange as an indicator of lurking evil.

The effort here was to combine an exorcism horror story with a courtroom drama, but the pairing of genres doesn’t pay off. Horror stories are based on fantasy logic, courtroom dramas on more stringent, everyday logic. One requires faith, the other proof—something that by definition faith does not require.

In interviews, Derrickson alludes often to Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” as his favorite film. In that classic, we see the same event as described by different participants and witnesses, but there’s nothing like this ironic viewpoint in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” All supernatural happenings are to be taken as absolutely, literally real; there’s no other way to interpret what we see. For instance, the time three a.m. is very important in the story; not only does spooky stuff happen then, but clocks stop. (Is that 3 am daylight savings time? Which time zone?) Although Derrickson does little to foster the possibility that nothing spooky is really happening, that it’s all in the minds of the participants, a clock stopped at three a.m. is simply real. There it is, the hands making a sharp right angle, not capable of any other interpretation.
The movie is somewhat tentative, which is a long way from ambiguous. It plays as if the people who made it don’t believe in any of this flapdoodle, but that they sincerely hope they can put one over on the audience, which they evidently view as easily led. The movie is sincere, but utterly lacking in conviction.

Or characters. Fine actors Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson play leading roles, but they have to wrest their characters out of the unhelpful script. We know zilch about Linney’s earnest lawyer Erin Bruner; she lives by herself and has no life other than the trial she’s working on. No pets, no boyfriend, not even any potted plants. She never eats, and has no spare time—every waking minute she’s working on the case.

Wilkinson is Father Moore, the priest who’s called to perform the exorcism on college age Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter, who screams a lot). Her family are long-time parishioners of Moore’s church, so it’s natural they turn to him. But we never see Moore in church; we see him in his cell, in court, and at the Rose’s farmhouse. Everything he says is about the exorcism and/or his case.

Campbell Scott has the thankless role of the prosecutor, and is given many lines in which he emphasizes his own Methodist beliefs—no Catholic he. But he’s also trapped by the script—he’s the villain of the piece. He shares semi-bad guy duties with Colm Feore, the head of the law firm where Erin is a junior partner.

After an opening on the Rose farm, replete with dark colors, a sinister weathervane, some sinister cats and a sinister wasp nest, we learn Emily Rose has died. Father Moore is promptly arrested, and Erin—coming off victory in a notorious murder case—ends up acting as his defense attorney.

The remainder of the movie alternates between flashbacks to Emily’s growing horror at her own demonic possession and courtroom scenes in which serious doctors of various types are trotted out to testify for the prosecution or the defense. Erin has decided to defend Father Moore by claiming that all his actions as an exorcist were reasonable and honest, that this was a case of real demonic possession, not “psychotic epileptic disorder,” as one psychiatrist insists.

We see almost nothing of Emily Rose before her possession, and after it begins, though we’re told that she repeatedly returned to normal, we never see her when she isn’t under demonic control. This reduces Carpenter to an object rather than a character, which is a shame as her unusual looks—strong features, elongated face—suggest a potentially interesting character.

Father Moore insists throughout that he’s undergoing the trial to tell Emily’s story. At the end, he reads her last letter to him, which involves the Virgin Mary (not shown) and her belief as to why she’s being put through all this. But though Wilkinson gives it his all, and may be convincing the jury, he’s not convincing to the other jury—the audience out there in the theater.

There’s clearly an earnest—you can’t say devout—effort to make this More Than A Horror Movie, or perhaps a horror movie for adults. There’s nothing very scary seen on screen, just some quick CGI fiddling with actors’ faces; Carpenter is actually more effective than the effects in her occasional sudden freezing into rigid paralysis. But since we never have a good idea of what she’s like when she’s not possessed, she remains just another kind of special effect. She has a boyfriend (Joshua Close), but they share no intimacy, nor does she with anyone else.

The courtroom scenes are routine; you can see more compelling legal drama any day of the week on “Law & Order” or even “Perry Mason.” The issues are settled before the trial begins; we’re never given an opportunity to consider that the priest might be wrong, or even working from his own self interests. When these lacks are joined by a refusal to depict Emily Rose as a real person, it’s extremely difficult to become absorbed in either the courtroom story or the exorcism.

There’s a reticence to the movie that drains it of the potential for scares, especially for the kind of soul-curdling scares of “The Exorcist.” It’s not just because as a PG-13 movie, it can’t show us anything really horrible; it’s in the simple nature of what we are shown. The possessed Emily never menaces anyone, not even herself; we’re told she scratches, even bites, the walls of her room, but we rarely see anything very intense. We’re told, not shown, that she’s lost teeth from her wall-gnawing escapades. There’s a horrible photo of Emily on her death bed that’s shown the jury (and, briefly, us), but we don’t know what’s wrong with her, or how she got that way.

Horror movies should not be so polite. I’m not calling for more and greater gore and violence; I’m calling for a greater understanding of what’s really frightening. A horror story about a possessed young woman needs to show us some of the more extreme horrors of possession, not a young woman screaming at the camera and doing little else other than some contortions. A horror movie should suggest a soul in danger—many souls in danger. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is all flashbacks; the horror is in the past, and director Derrickson cannot bring it into the theater.

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