Review first published by EyeforFilm
When God-fearing 19-year-old college freshman Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) dies shortly after being subjected to an exorcism in her rural family home, parish priest Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is put on trial for negligent homicide. Moore’s defense is taken on by agnostic attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) in exchange for a promised promotion – but then, as strange events begin to interfere with the trial, and the even stranger details of Emily’s story emerge, Erin begins to doubt her own doubt.
The Exorcism Of Emily Rose wants to be at the horror genre’s most visceral end, except it is never particularly scary, even if it tries hard to make a flying pigeon appear menacing and wide-eyed demonic-looking co-eds seem out of the ordinary. It wants to be a gripping courtroom drama, except the witnesses and evidence are so ludicrous that when prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) objects at one point on grounds of “silliness”, you will find yourself nodding along in agreement. Every character is a joke, but only Shohreh Aghdashloo, as defense witness Dr Adani, seems to be in on it, putting on a hilarious display of eccentric gestures and tics, as though she were the one possessed.
Most of all, the film wants to escape the long shadow cast by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and in this, at least, it has succeeded; for where The Exorcist was intelligent, provocative and downright terrifying, the very soul of Scott Derrickson’s film has been overtaken by bland characters, cheap shocks, kindergarten theology and a pace so plodding that viewers will be left wondering whether it is just Erin’s watch that has mysteriously stopped.
The irony is that the “true story,” on which the film purports to be based, was arguably influenced by The Exorcist. German Anneliese Michel may have been experiencing seizures and depression from as early as her teens in 1968, but it was only after the initial release of Friedkin’s film, in the summer of 1973, that Anneliese’s parents would request an exorcism – and it was only in 1975, amidst a Europe-wide climate of religious hysteria engendered by the film, that the Bishop of Wurzburg would finally give his approval to the ritual for Anneliese.
Derrickson’s film vividly portrays the priest’s heroic, if doomed, struggle to confront the demons in Emily’s body over one long, stormy night in a barn, but the reality that inspired this episode was far more tragic, as Anneliese submitted to violent exorcisms twice a week for an exhausting 10 months, rupturing her knees with the hundreds of genuflections she performed each day, before finally dying of starvation and pneumonia.
Much of the case for the priest’s defense in the film revolves around a single tape recording of the exorcism, but, in reality, there were 42 separate tape recordings made of Anneliese’s ordeal and even these did not provide enough evidence to dissuade a subsequent Commission of the German Bishops’ Conference from finding that she had never been possessed in the first place. It was simply a case of a devout and highly impressionable adolescent able to comprehend the temporal lobe epilepsy and psychosis which afflicted her only in the religious terms of her closeted upbringing.
This is what makes The Exorcism Of Emily Rose such a deeply dishonest film. By opting for a courtroom setting, it not only dramatises the conflict between rationalism and religion, psychiatry and superstition, but also pretends to give both sides an equal hearing. Yet, since this is a fictional movie, as opposed to anything like a real trial, inevitably it is the devil who gets the best tunes. All that the prosecution’s doctors and psychiatrists can offer is figures, observations, data, experience and a version of events that is as grimly banal as life itself – whereas once Father Moore enters the dock, he can dazzle us with a story rich in drama, horror, passion and redemption, a story that appeals to our love of The Exorcist, perhaps even of the New Testament.
No matter whether his words (and the vivid flashbacks that accompany them) are hardly believable so long as they are entertaining, for that is the ultimate criterion by which filmgoers form their verdicts. And so The Exorcism Of Emily Rose tries to manipulate its viewers into confusing their own willing suspension of disbelief with the judicial concept of reasonable doubt and even the religious notion of faith. The result is a diabolical blend of lies and truth.
With the religious right in possession of the White House, a President happy to ignore his own scientists, and versions of Creationism creeping back into the school curriculum, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose comes at a point in US history when the separation between Church and State is at its most precarious and the Enlightenment is being left alone and unheard in the dark.
If evolution is once again placed in the dock, we had better pray that the many thousands of Americans who bought tickets for this film were not swayed by its insidiously anti-rationalist arguments. Otherwise, heaven help us all.
© Anton Bitel