In terms of quality if not quantity, the exorcism genre just about began and ended with THE EXORCIST (what else has been worth watching, except perhaps William Peter Blatty’s follow-up THE EXORCIST III?). Consequently, it might sound like damning with faint praise to say that THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is the best film of its kind in a long time. But truthfully, the film finds a way to justify its existence despite the inevitable comparisons to the classic in whose shadow it will inevtiably stand, and it actually manages to work on a level very similar to THE EXORCIST, without being slavishly imitative. In fact, it is far more faithful to the spirit of that film than most of the EXORCIST sequels have been.
Basically, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a courtroom drama about a failed exorcism: the subject, a young woman (Jennifer Carpenter) died while in the care of a priest (Tom Wilkinson), who is charged with negligent homicide. A female lawyer whose star is rising (Laura Tinney) takes the case at the behest of her boss, who seems more interested in serving the interests of the local Catholic diocese than that of the client, who refuses to take a plea bargain because he wants to tell Emily’s story in court and let the jury decide.
The possession and exorcsim scenes all take place in flashback while various parties (doctors, psychiatrists) testify about what happened to Emily. This technique allows the film to portray her suffering a la RASHAMON, but with a significant difference: there is little disagreement about what actually happened to Emily; it’s all a question of interpretation. By giving us the facts as seen through the eyes of the various beholders, the film is asking us to be the jury that decides the case, and the information provided is very intentionally left open to interpretation.
Rather than seeming wishy-washy and indecisve, this results in a film with a great deal of tension and suspense. Structuring the story as a courtroom drama increases the horror because it takes place in a believable context: whether you think Emily is ill or possessed, what happens to her is almost beyond endurance. Moreover, because the fate of the priest rests on the trial’s outcome, it’s clear that the horrific events in the story have dramatic consequences: what happens is part of a convincing story, not just a series of gratuitous special effects shocks.
This sets THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE a level above the standard shock fest, in which the horror often exists for no other reason than to freak out the audience, while the characters run around almost anethsitized to what is happening, except in so far as their lives are in danger. (For an example of this phenomenon, look no further than CURSED, the silly werewolf film in which, after tons of gore and death and carnage, the surviving characters walk away smiling and happy, as if nothing had happened.)
In THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, on the other hand, the fact that the priest is on trial gives the horror some dramatic weight. Since Emily is already dead, the story cannot be about saving her life; instead, it is an examination of what happened to her and who is responsible, if anyone, for her death. This almost inevitably leads to an attempt to examine questions about faith, as the characters try to find some meaning in what happened.
In this sense, the film is most simlar to THE EXORCIST, which also looked at the mystery of faith. The difference is that in the film version of THE EXORCIST (as opposed to the novel), the impact of the special effects was so powerful that viewers never questioned whether the possession of Regan Theresa MacNeil was genuine or not. EMILY ROSE tries to leave the question more open, although in the end it does come down heavily in favor of keeping an open mind toward the possibility of the miraculous.
Besides the clever story conceit, much of the horror should be credited to the excellent score by Christopher Young (who always seems to do great work in this genre) and to the performance of Jennifer Carpenter in the title role. The special effects deployed are actually very mild: no projectile vomiting, levitation, spinning heads, or crucifix masturbation scenes here. Instead, the horror arises from seeing Emily Rose lose control of herself, perhaps wracked by an epileptic seizure, while simultaneously suffering from demonc visions (which could be explained as manifestations of psychosis). Carpenter’s work, twisting her face and contorting her body with little or no assitance from the makeup and/or special effects departments, is is both terrifying and heartbreaking – more than enough to make the film chilling.
Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney are extremely convincing in their roles, and the supporting cast is uniformly good as well, even those who come on for only a scene or two. The production design, cinematography, and direction combine to showcase the cast in a film that is at once a good courtroom drama and a creepy horror film, whose scares are all the more effective because they seem to take place in the real world.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE perhaps overdoes the spook angle a bit much, as if afraid of boring viewers. The horror is not limited to Emily’s possession, and the movie is not above tossing in a gratuitous shock or two. There are lots of quite interludes interrupted by sudden, loud banging, and one potential witness is struck down by a car, as if Satan is preventing him from testifying; the only problem is, he had already decided not to testify. (Surely, the Prince of Darkness should reward bad behavior?)
Also, Linney’s defense attorney hears more than a few “things that go bump in the night,” as if the forces of darkness are attacking her because she is defending Father Moore (Wilkinson). We’re supposed to see this as a visual expression of her “long, dark night of the soul’ (she feels guilty for helping to aquite a murderer — who killed again). The Hollywood transformation from cynical career-climber to crusading defender of the innocent is a bit predictable, if sincerely handled. To some extent, it undermines the versimilitude of the story: instead of a legal examination of a possibly preturanatural phenomena, this subplot makes the film feel a bit like a contrived Hollywood hybrid. (You can almost hear the studio execs chortling with glee: “It’s John Grisham meets THE EXORCIST — I like it!”)
In the end, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE tries to offer an upbeat interpretation, suggesting that Emily was a martyr of sorts, who willingly accepted her suffering for the benefit of others. The idea is that her torment at the hands of demons proves the existence of the diabolic and, by extension, the existence of the divine (an idea at the heart of THE EXORCIST). Fortunately, the film does not force the interpretation on the audience but leaves it as something that some of the characters believe. In this way, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE manages to take on some heavy philosophical issues, using its subject matter to provoke debate on an interesting subject, without too obviously preaching a sermon. The result should please open-minded believers and non-believers alike.
Although the credits and the advertising campaign for THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE claim that the film is “based on a true story,” there seems to be not much more than a bare fragment of truth in its script. Before the end credits, a title card tells us that a character involved with the real case cooperated with an author who wrote a book, which served as the basis for the film. Although screenwriters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman purchased the rights, neither the book nor the author is named. The book is in fact The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, and the basic point of similarity between the actual events and the film story is that a young woman dies during an exorcism and the priest was put on trial for negligent homicide (in real life, her parents were charged as well). In the actual case, it seems clear that the young woman’s death resulted from negligence: she died after undergoing an exhausting series of exorcisms for months, which apparently included continually genuflecting until he knees gave out (in the film, only one ritual of exorcism is performed). An authentic adaptation of the true story would have more likely been a film about a misguided priest whose efforts inadvertently kill someone he’s trying to save — not an uplifting Hollywood story.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005). Produced by Paul Harris Boardman. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson. Cast: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter, Campbell Scott, Mary Beth Hurt, Shohreh Aghdashloo.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski