Directed by Scott Derrickson
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is an uninspiring mix of claptrap, idiocy, fallacy and foolishness, yet strains the edges of bad taste by nearly achieving the status of a camp classic. I say “nearly,” because it’s far too mediocre to have earned such nobility, and entirely too boring to really excite the juices of cult-ish devotion. To be sure, there are scenes so preposterous and laughable that for a moment it seems poised to go over the top, but by the time we reach the end of a comically insipid trial, the screenplay ends up pleasing no one by trying to have it both ways. This is a film that firmly believes in the power of demonic possession and the presence of evil, but without blinking, also asks us to understand that in a court of law, reason and empirical evidence must prevail, despite the constant temptation to decide otherwise. We can have a priest who is technically guilty, but at the same time a prosecuting attorney who is an upstanding Christian man who is only doing job. We are also presented with a defense attorney who at first is a professed agnostic (just the cold hard facts, please), but by the end has experienced her own flirtation with the dark side. Don’t you see? We’re all believers, even if we don’t know it yet. We’ll go through the motions of holding people accountable for their crimes, but once we set foot outside the courtroom, we are all locked in an eternal battle with the enemies of God.
Tom Wilkinson is Father Moore, a Catholic priest on trial for the death of young Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), who we come to understand is both epileptic and schizophrenic (or is she?), but according to the Man of God, is under the spell of the Devil himself. Moore is so committed to his belief that he forces Emily to stop taking her medication because he sees it as inhibiting the exorcism process. Naturally, the girl dies from starvation and neglect, although Moore believes it is the delusions of science, not his barbaric practices, that have ended the girl’s life. Enter Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), the aforementioned skeptic who wants to be big in her law firm, and sees this as an opportunity to shine. And then there’s Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), the man who can slam the dickens out of a priest, yet still love Jesus in the morning. It has all the makings of a titanic battle of faith versus science, but no such ambitions are present. Instead, this will be little more than a wacky courtroom drama (staged on that planet that still has zany objections, one-liners, and a judge who has all the authority of a meter maid) with lively flashbacks to give us the illusion of action.
The flashbacks, fortunately, are what elevate this film from dull chamber piece to sheer insanity, as they reinforce Father Moore’s convictions, as well as the maxim that any film character under the spell of Satan is inherently silly. Carpenter’s wild dance is the stuff of legends, especially when she bursts out of a window, runs to a barn, and proceeds to shake, scream, and shimmy about as if hooked to electrodes. The scene also features possessed cats leaping from the darkness to slash the priest, as well as frightened horses, thunderclaps, and buckets of rain. The scene is so overwrought that I couldn’t help but giggle like a schoolgirl, which is unlikely the desired result. Throughout, Wilkinson is exchanging Latin phrases with the girl, throwing holy water about, and looking a bit like Richard Burton in that offensive sequel to the The Exorcist. We had everything but the plague of locusts, although a bit earlier the girl was caught in her bedroom ingesting spiders and other household pests.
Because this is loosely based on an actual case in Germany, we (meaning all those who are rational devotees of the scientific method) know that a girl with severe mental and physical problems, with the aid of religious bastards armed with the rhetoric of barbaric traditions, believed she was a saint and a vessel for the Virgin Mary, and thus died to bring others to the wisdom of God’s love. She was in fact batty as hell and is better off tucked beneath her dirt blanket where she cannot breed and thus bring to the world more psychopaths, but this film makes her the martyr she sought to be. Perhaps she died needlessly, but only Mr. Thomas (and the jury, although half-heartedly, as the priest is only sentenced to time served) seems to argue on behalf of a working intellect. It is telling that Scott is given a sinister moustache to add to the idea that the courts are failing because they do not take into account the superstitious and the supernatural. And hell, Emily Rose won the battle in the end, for as the epilogue tells us, her grave has become an unofficial shrine for all those who grew weary of following Mary-encrusted potato chips, tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches across the less enlightened sections of the earth.
Since The Exorcism of Emily Rose is, in the end, far too brainless to take seriously, there’s little applicability to the world at large, but perhaps it can be seen, in its own small (and unintentional) way, as a microcosm of American life at this point on our path to self-destruction. Despite continually checking the calendar to prove that yes, this is indeed the year 2005, we are being led by a president who believes in angels, the literal existence of good and evil, a supreme being that interferes in the affairs of men, the “fact” that the effing universe was created on October 22, 4004 BC around 6:00 pm, and an afterlife that rewards those who refrain from anal sex. But why be so hard on the Chief Executive? I am literally surrounded by millions of so-called “real” Americans who adhere to the same outrageous lies, and those who believe in a virgin birth and Noah’s Ark far outnumber those who accept evolution as fact. No mainstream American film is ever going to risk censure by completely and unapologetically belittling the idea of demonic possession, because its “reality” holds sway over entire communities; you know, the very people who believe that the Earth itself is only a few thousand years old and fossils are a left-wing conspiracy. The same sub-mental cretins who wave American flags made in China, drive gas-guzzling behemoths as a demonstration of their patriotism, and gyrate with orgasmic delight over sending their sons off to die for corporations, all while those same entities slash wages, kill off what remain of unions, and demand more for less while telling all of us that what’s really driving us to distraction is the possibility that two men might seek to join hands in marriage. Given this environment of submission and madness, why not demonic possession? It only seems natural.
And while we’re on the subject of lunacy, what are we to make of the idea (promoted by the film) that 3AM is the “witching hour” because it serves to mock the trinity and is an inversion of 3PM, the accepted hour of Christ’s crucifixion? [Ed Note: Where do they get these fucking times?] After all, doesn’t Laura Linney’s character hear voices and feel the brush of evil at that very hour of the night? Let’s accept this idea at face value and then ask this question: are you saying that in the same universe that is so complex as to leave the average individual reeling — the human brain, DNA, black holes, gravity, the sheer scale of galaxies — our very lives (and afterlives) are being manipulated and pre-determined by a deity that adheres to magic tricks and numerology? A God that can create stars, planets, light, and sound, also freezes clocks and opens shutters to raise the hair on the back of our necks? A Lord that made us in his image, as well as our entire planet in a few short hours, is utterly helpless in the face of demons that acquire human form just so they can scream like banshees and claw the walls? Is this where human history has taken us? In the face of this, who in their right mind wouldn’t choose to empty a shotgun in one’s mouth?