Saturday, September 10, 2005

REVIEW: The Exorcism of Emily Rose

WARNING: The new film "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" nominally presents itself as a mystery, and thus any serious discussion of the film and it's merits (or lack thereof) will contain SPOILERS. You have been warned.

Here is one of the great consistent ironies of the modern cinema: The horror genre, subsisting as it does largely on violence, sex and demonic imagery, is generally tops amongthe genres hated and cited as cause for censorship by religious organizations. However, the horror genre also subsisting as it does largely on the "reality" of demonic forces, good-versus-evil and the power of religious symbology, is the most consistently devout of modern film genres. To date, "The Exorcist" remains the most bluntly pro-religion film made by any major studio in the modern era, crucifix-masturbation and all.

So it's not really a surprise that "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," though it's being marketed as a straight horror film and maintains self-illusions of a courtroom drama playing out the grand questions of secularism versus faith, can only retain it's pretense of open-mindedness for so long before it collapses into both the traditional hokum of genre cliche's and, perhaps also, a work of only semi-intentional propaganda on behalf of doctrinaire fundamentalism. It's a film that seems to struggle, ultimately in vain, to remain a serious exploration of both sides... but is ultimately defeated both by a desire to be an effective scary movie and deliver a religious message, BOTH of which demand a single-mindedness that makes serious exploration impossible.

But first to the movie itself...

Let's get one thing out of the way right now: despite what the film's promotions, trailers and even it's final codas tell you, this is NOT A TRUE STORY. There is no Emily Rose, there never was, and that's that. The "based on" in "based on a true story" here refers to the 1976 case of German teenager Anneliese Michel, who believed herself posessed numerous demons (Hitler and Nero among them) and who was "exorcised" often multiple times in a day by a succession of multiple priests. When this experience eventually killed her, the priests and her parents were charged with negligent manslaughter and subsequently found guilty.

Aside from reimagining Michel as Emily Rose, the film also relocates the story to present-day rural America, reduces the number of priests and exorcisms to just one and leaves the rest of the Rose family out of the charges. Thus, the courtroom drama which frames the film is able to serve double-duty, "Inherit The Wind"-style, as an open forum to argue out the broadest possible competing points of religiousity and secularism: Accused of negligent homicide in the death of Emily Rose, (Jennifer Carpenter,) Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is sent to trial. Campbell Scott is the devoutly-Christian prosecutor Ethan Thomas (as in "Doubting Thomas?") and Laura Linney is agnostic rising-star defense attorney Erin Bruner who takes the case for the career boost.

So, yes, the non-believer is representing the priest who's guilt or innocence largely depends on one's commitment to the spiritual, while rationality and the law of the strictly-physical is represented by a churchgoing Christian. Such irony! Can't you just see the screenwriter grabbing a celebratory second muffin to congratulate himself for such cleverness? In any case, here's the meat of our conflict: Father Moore is unafraid of verdicts or jail-time, he desires only his attorney's promise that he be allowed to use his testimony to tell the world "the truth about Emily." However, the Catholic Archdiocese paying for his defense would prefer he not say anything and just let the matter pass with minimal publicity.

Which track will Erin take? Will her lack-of-faith be tested by possibly-demonic encounters of her own? Will the innevitable resolution of this conflict cause an otherwise intriugingly ambiguous mystery story to go off the rails into 3rd-act speechifying? Are the courtroom scenes increasingly stacked in favor of one side? Do you really need to ask? (What I really need to ask is who told Campbell Scott it would be a good idea to play his role by doing an impression of Tom Skerritt.)

Despite a clunky opening, (Linney gets one of the most laughably exposition-dense character introduction scenes I've ever seen,) for the most part the film settles into a well-executed, comfortable pace for the most part: The courtroom scenes are well acted and efficient, even if it does all play out like "Law & Order: Satanic Victims Unit." We see the events leading up to Emily's death in flashbacks, often from both "believer" and "skeptic" viewpoints, and relative newcomer Carpenter throws herself into the Linda Blair role with gusto: Her Emily Rose; wild-eyed, clad often in a sopping-wet rustic nightgown, gifted with remarkable contortionist skills, shrieking in Aramaic and eventually Stigmatic, recalls both the beasties of "Evil Dead" or (to me, anyway) a pinup fantasy for Mel Gibson.

All of this stuff works really well, helped greatly by a talented cast of (mostly Canadian) top-tier acting talent. But they can only do so much, and soon enough the problems start to pile up. That the courtroom drama stacks the deck in favor of the defense is kind of innevitable, but it gets too far out of hand too soon: A witness giving the "skeptical scientist" side for the prosecution is, of course, an oily creep with subtly-gray fleshtones and a cold stare, while the defense counters with a spiritualy-inclined scientist played by Shoreh Agdashloo ("House of Sand & Fog" and "24") as an ethereal multi-culti Earth Mother archetype (this actress deserves better, she's mostly here to name-drop Carlos Castaneda for all you smarty-pantses in the audience.)

But the film doesn't really slip up until it's final act, the discussion of which warrants yet another MAJOR SPOILER WARNING...

...Come the last act, "the truth" comes into play and the film basically drops all pretense of being an objective observation of a debate-as-story. It's eventually not enough for the film to argue that Father Moore might not be crazy in his beliefs, it has to turn the whole case (and the movie) into a referendum on the need for spirituality in the modern world; "will Father Moore be found innocent?" morphs inexorably into "will the jury realize the need to let Father Moore go in order to strike a blow for faith against the tyranny of the scientific age?" without a second thought.

A final twist, involving a piece of evidence clumsily hidden from the audience until the last possible moment, gives the film a coda that would be shaky in a Bobsey Twins opus: That Emily's posession, her death and the resulting trial have actually been a grand piece of human theater staged by God as a way to remind people that Demons and, thus, their Angel enemies are still very much real. Seriously, that's what happens: God "dunnit," multiple deaths and all, in a bid for our attention. Evidently, appearing in misshapen pastry and on the back of Mexian highway signs just isn't cuttin' it anymore.

I'm actually wondering if the filmmakers realize what is being suggested by going this route. Do they even realize that they've essentially made a film who's message is: "The Lord works in mysterious ways, so don't question the actions of priests or anyone else carrying out his orders no matter how wrong they look to us mere mortals."?

This isn't to say that, if indeed the film is taking the form of an argument in favor of hardline religious fundamentalism that it's automatically "bad." In fact, it's overall a solid bit of work and, after all, "Birth of A Nation" and "Triumph of The Will" are still both important works of cinema despite championing the Klu Klux Klan and Nazism, respectively. The problem, rather, is that you need to be a filmmaker of incredible skill to make a climax this out-of-left-field work, and that's just not the case here. Every argument, no matter how ridiculous, can be made... just not by everyone.

Much like the similarly-afflicted "Frailty" of a few years back, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is an extremely interested, well-made and well-acted film that just isn't good enough to justify the extraordinary reach it asks a thinking audience to make. What begins as a clever fusion of courtroom drama and horror show ends up looking like a "Perry Mason" fanfic scripted by Pat Robertson, and the quality nosedives into strictly-average territory. But while the good parts last, they're good enough to justify a look.