Audiences seeking the elusive rush of fear that William Friedkin so eloquently delivered in his bar-setting 1973 horror classic The Exorcist will be sorely disappointed by writer/director Scott Derrickson’s imbalanced attempt at stirring similar emotions. Purportedly based on actual events, the story commences just after the death of a 19-year-old girl (Jennifer Carpenter) during an exorcism performed by a priest (Tom Wilkinson—In the Bedroom) who suddenly finds himself the target of murder charges based on his assumed negligence.
Father Richard Moore (Wilkinson) refuses to cop a plea and instead insists on publicly airing the girl’s story in a jury trial with the assistance of his power-hungry attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney—Kinsey). The movie unsuccessfully toggles between snappy courtroom testimony and creepy flashback episodes that build toward an anticlimax that reneges on the stated promise of portraying the immediate circumstances of Emily Rose’s death.
Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger) is well cast as Ethan Thomas, a vengeful prosecuting attorney with far right Christian bent to his strident personality. But Scott’s character off-handedly contributes to the film’s downfall. There’s an overemphasis on the courtroom aspect of the story that should have been relegated to a subplot instead of a flip side to the exorcism at hand.
Derrickson deflates the film’s gloomy tension of prevailing horror every time he abandons Father Moore’s flashbacks of attempting to exorcise a demon that identifies itself as Satan from the helpless girl. Lacking too is a sufficient strength of presence from newcomer Jennifer Carpenter (White Chicks) whose Emily Rose character is severely underdeveloped, especially as compared with Linda Blair’s Regan in Friedkin’s Exorcist. Make-up and visual effects designer Keith Vanderlaan is partially to blame for not going far enough with his designs toward creating a complete physical transformation for Emily.
Yet, the exorcism sequences carry a pragmatic approach that gives them a literal and believable air of authenticity that bristles with goose bump-raising capacity. It’s clear Derrickson and co-scriptwriter Paul Harris Boardman have transposed accurate language and events from factual exorcisms and yet don’t allocate additional dramatic and artistic license to properly pressurize the scenes with hostility, suspense and blood-curdling fear. The film returns so regularly back to courtroom banter over science and demonic possession that it seems the writers were scared to dig into the dark reality of their own material.
As an agnostic career-obsessed attorney, Linney’s character Erin is posited somewhere between the wicked husband played by John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby and the young priest in The Exorcist. The screenwriters flirt too briefly with intrusions of evil in Erin’s personal life and squander their opportunity to delve into aspects of her experience that link her to the evil that took Emily Rose’s life.
Because we’re experiencing Emily’s story in flashback we are distanced too much from the palpable danger of a demon taking its toll in the here and now. The evil has already been evicted before the movie begins. This built-in flashback narrative device buffers the audience from ever feeling vulnerable.
The Exorcism Of Emily Rose must inevitably be compared to The Exorcist, and pales drastically in the process. The problem is that too much attention is given to the trial of a priest whose future is already irrelevant because he’s already damaged goods.
We know that he is a good man who has been made to suffer by a cold brand of evil that will haunt him forever. Father Moore is an emotionally maimed victim who will get through his life by way of his faith no matter where he lives out his days. Erin, however, has a chance of being normal if she hasn’t already been polarized by her mental proximity to evil. For just as much as the film is a contemplation of science versus religious belief, it is also a meditation on physical reality versus mental belief.
The epithet of The Exorcist as the “scariest movie ever made” is secure until some overtly ambitious filmmaker dares to flirt so dangerously with demonic evil that it strangely affects an audience’s five senses. The Exorcism Of Emily Rose merely provides a whiff of monolithic horror. MTW