“No Guts Here”
There is nothing particularly wrong with The Exorcism of Emily Rose. It is an acceptable studio release. The lead actors (Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney) are capable. The atmosphere is appropriately moody—lots of murk and shadows. It is raises a lot of interesting questions. The Exorcism of Emily Rose will hold your attention for the better part of two hours and then you can go make yourself some dinner, or read a book, or go out dancing. It won’t haunt you afterward—the way it should. At least, it didn’t haunt me.
A young girl from a religious family finds herself unable to deal with dark forces lurking inside her. After attempting to deal with the problem from a strictly medical perspective, the family seeks the aid of their parish priest. The girl, Emily, dies and the priest is put on trial. Now, as these things go, it isn’t just the priest who is on trial—it is an entire system of thought and behaviour. The framework of a trial—where individual fates are inextricably linked to larger societal and cultural consequences—is a resonant one for this type of intellect versus faith story.
We are drawn to both real-life trials and those that have been dramatized. We are drawn because we would like to hear opposing stories being told about a single event. Deep down, we know things are not as simple as we make them out to be. In a courtroom, the prosecution and defense gather the artifacts of the event in order to tell the most convincing story about what happened. But it is not just what happened that interests us; no, it is implication for behaviour—how should we live? Are we heading in the right direction? But The Exorcism of Emily Rose suggests ideas without exploring them. It tugs at heartstrings that it hasn’t strung tight enough. The basic elements of story—theme, plot, and characterization—are clear and functional, but too generic, too easy. Our protagonist’s journey—from agnostic to potential mystic—is predictable and unconvincing. The courtroom scenes are didactic, but neither the defense nor the prosecution is particularly insightful, challenging or intense.
There was only one sequence that truly struck a chord with me—Erin’s (Laura Linney) discovery, during the intense pressures of the case, of a gold locket lying in the snow. The locket is engraved with her initials, and she remarks how profoundly affected she was by the happenstance—how she found this locket before anyone else, and at a time when she needed inspiration to continue in the direction she was headed. We do want the world to reveal to us whether or not our actions are right. And when something seems to offer us a sign, we grasp at it, often without even realizing that we’re interpreting the world around us as meaningful. While this tendency seems to contradict our rational and materialistic understanding of the world, it is none-the-less an inherent aspect of our human experience.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose has set itself up to be disappointing; you cannot help but compare it to The Exorcist—the groundbreaking classic of the genre—from which it borrows its thematic concerns and some iconic imagery. It borrows these elements, but doesn’t do anything with them, doesn’t offer anything new; it simply pales in comparison. The director seems to know that it can’t achieve the same genuine drama and suspense of its predecessor, so he bombards the audience. During the flashback scenes depicting the actual exorcism, the film is too chaotic—too loud, too rapidly cut, too aggressive. We can barely make out what’s happening, and it isn’t scary. While there were jarring bursts of sound and activity in The Exorcist, most of the film is remarkably quiet. William Friedkin didn’t need to constantly throw things at us because he was able to convince us—through expertly crafted atmosphere and performance—that there was a menacing personality inside Regan, one that actually converses with the priests (rather than just screaming at them demonically). The craft of The Exorcism of Emily Rose is mediocre, and the film is forced to distract you—the way the flashing lights and pounding music at a club might distract you from the fact that the drunken idiot strutting before you isn’t actually sexy.
The film pretends to explore the conflict between faith and science. Was Emily Rose mentally ill or demonically possessed? We are meant to listen to the facts of the case and decide for ourselves. But then the film takes a side—she’s very much possessed, it tells us. Well, you can’t have it both ways. It’s fine to tell a tale of demonic possession; The Exorcist does just that, but is more convincing, more committed to its good versus evil set-up. It doesn’t pretend to offer us the option of disbelief. The textures of the film are realistic; the aesthetic is earthy, and we are given a convincing demonic personality to invest in—clever, persuasive, and occasionally charming. That’s what made it so frightening. There are scenes in which the demon is chatting away with Father Karras as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The demon inside Emily Rose is generic, and the manifestations of its evil have a synthetic movie-magic quality that feels cheap. You can find similar demon faces all over YouTube posted by anyone with access to Adobe After Affects.
For a far creepier experience than this film, I would suggest a late-night exploration—via Google or YouTube—of the documented facts relating to the exorcism of Anneliese Michel in Germany in the mid-70s. The testimony, the archival photographs, the audio-recordings—these are eerie and disquieting. Regardless of the true nature of whatever actually happened to her, the physical reality of her ordeal is haunting, and the emotional stress she and her family experienced must have been unbearable. The Exorcism of Emily Rose purports to be based on this case, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to doing it justice. It is merely a PG-13 horror drama—not too horrific, and not too challenging. As a film-going experience, it is reasonably entertaining, but doesn’t hit the mark—mind nor guts. Meh.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson
Stars: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter