Title: The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenwriters: Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson
Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Conceptually, I am in love with The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The film proper is somewhat of a different story. On paper, it’s enough to send me into a perpetual euphoria: a) religious mumbo-jumbo combined with b) a courtroom drama, starring c) Laura Linney and d) Campbell Scott as e) opposing attorneys embroiled in a case that f) seems to have been inspired by The Exorcist. Hell, it’s even “based on a true story” — this actually happened, they say. So what went wrong?
Well, maybe that insistence on the connection to reality is the fundamental misstep here. After all, a “true story” and a horror movie about demonic possession can exist side-by-side only for a limited time; sooner or later, something’s gotta give. But The Exorcism of Emily Rose is stubborn: though seemingly abandoning all pretense of impartiality and verisimilitude several times during its balls-to-the-wall sequences of satanic attack, it feels it must ultimately insist that this story proves that the extraordinary, the supernatural and the miraculous are possible in our world. But does it, really? Does this movie, chock full of horror formulas and courtroom cliches, demonstrate any such thing?
So, looking at it one way, it seems like the film’s attempts to be an impartial examination of what is purportedly a real life event rendered what was an otherwise effective horror film clumsy. But I could just as easily take it in the other direction. As a fanciful, Rashomon-style examination of what the Catholic Church recognized as an actual case of possession, this could have been fascinating, and indeed the movie takes significant strides in this direction with its flashback structure, sometimes taking one side, sometimes another. And here, it is the inevitable surrender to the supernatural that gets in the way, as the climax of the film eliminates all ambiguity about what happened to Emily, at least in the eyes of the screenwriters.
Technically, the movie serves; Scott Derrickson, whose pedigree includes directing a Hellraiser sequel and writing a chunk of the immortal Urban Legends franchise, directs without much of a signature but with a nice sense of the creepy and the striking. I must admit that certain images remain in the memory, particularly the building menacingly illuminated with red lights as Emily, terrified of the demons attacking her, runs past. And the actual exorcism sequence is impressively disorienting, intense and, yes, scary.
On the other hand — there are lots of other hands in this movie — some of the screenplay’s horror elements just seem disorganized. Erin Bruner (Linney), the lawyer defending Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) from the charge of negligent homicide, is supposedly the target of demonic attacks, but they seem to consist mostly of her waking up at 3 AM (the demonic “witching hour,” we are informed), and occasionally a door opening on its own. Not that terrifying.
Linney and Scott are far and away the main reason to see The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Each of Linney’s performances is the equivalent of a master’s thesis; every motion, every blink, hair toss, smile seem studied and carefully constructed, and the result, rather than being artificial, is usually more complex and layered than the actual character as written. And Scott, whose little-known comedic roles (Top of the Food Chain, The Impostors) are symphonies of looniness, crafts an absolutely plausible prosecuting attorney; rarely do I “buy” a character this wholly.
Most of the entries in the “religious mumbo-jumbo” genre pretty much get a free pass from me, as it’s easily my favorite horror sub-genre; I love this stuff. But The Exorcism of Emily Rose, while admirably ambitious, is also undercooked and disorganized. It wants to have it both ways right up until the bitter end, with a conclusion so waffling it makes A Few Good Men look like a model of firm narrative resolve by comparison. If your reaction to the advertising is to say “I liked it better when it was called The Exorcist, you are both wrong (that film is much more direct and straightforward) and right (it’s also a lot better).