The Exorcist, while wildly popular for its time, now plays like a hilarious exercise in excess. Linda Blair spins her head in circles while laughing, cursing, and jamming crosses into her holiest of areas. It is extremely funny, but the word ‘scary’ never comes to mind as a fitting adjective. Exorcism Of Emily Rose, while not likely to keep you up nights crying for your mommy, is surprisingly spooky given the subject matter.
The story based on true events from several decades ago, is about a teenage girl named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) who dies tragically after long periods of abnormal behavior. She starts college with hope and anticipation, until the dark side consumes her fragile body. Aggressive unseen forces seem to be attacking her, people’s faces morph into frightening demons before her eyes, and she has lost the ability to eat. It’s hard enough when your life plays like a bad acid trip, without having to add anorexia to the list of problems.
Doctors diagnose her as either epileptic or psychotic, without coming to a general consensus. When her medication fails to improve her condition, her religious family intervenes, by bringing in a priest named Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) to evaluate the situation. He believes she is possessed by demons, and advises her to go off her medication so he can conduct an exorcism. Instead of a quick recovery, she dies at the age of 19, and Father Moore finds himself on trial for negligent homicide.
Erin Burner (Laura Linney) serves as district attorney, while Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) prosecutes the case. Erin is a self-proclaimed agnostic, who defends the priest despite her lack of belief in demons and supernatural events. Ethan is a devout Catholic, but feels that the priest is responsible for her death. Father Moore is a deeply religious man who believes he did all he could to save Emily, and insists on going to trial regardless of his possibly ill-fated verdict, so he can tell her story to the world. And a very bizarre story it is.
The best thing about Exorcism Of Emily Rose is that it manages to take a sketchy topic like possession, and offer it as a possible reality. The movie offers no answers but it raises a lot of questions: Was it truly a medical problem she suffered from? If medication wasn’t working, was it wrong to try a supernatural method instead? Who is really to blame, and what is the truth? Many of the characters in the film with stern theological standpoints find themselves doubting what they are saying and hearing, making the line between right and wrong seem even less defined.
Moviegoers expecting a nonstop scarefest may find themselves disappointed. The misleading trailers for the film make it seem like a full-blown horror movie, which it isn't. While there are certainly creepy moments, especially involving the insanely violent exorcism itself, most of the movie would best be classified as a courtroom drama. It’s rare to see a horror movie with such a strong underbelly of intelligence, making it much more effective than a typical slasher flick.
Exorcism of Emily Rose is a good movie sometimes weighed down by excessive camera zooming and a few hokey hiccups. Some scenes feel a little inconsistent in their objectivity, but the film’s strength is that generally writer Paul Harris Boardman and writer/director Scott Derrickson let you draw your own conclusions about the story’s possibilities. The exceptionally talented actors involved are a nice compliment to the movie’s solid writing, and a brief but pivotal performance by Shohreh Aghdashloo rounds the cast out perfectly. Not since Inherit The Wind have I seen such a balanced debate between two sides of a controversial issue: the ongoing battle between religion and science. Exorcism Of Emily Rose is the thinking person’s horror film, proof that scary movies can have brains beyond the gore. Take notes, Wes Craven.