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The Rite is so frustratingly close. Had it bothered to exorcise itself of three, maybe four scenes, you would be reading a glowing review. Even as it stands, I’m still tempted to recommend it. Let’s face it: most horror movies don’t work. Not because they’re aren't scary but because they don’t slow themselves down long enough to let you truly invest in the moment. Typically, more discerning minds like to blame it on clichés. This is somewhat true, but the reason why so many horror movies follow the same general story arc is because it’s a proven winner. You need a character that doesn’t believe, just as you need one that’s blindly assured. You need fake scares and real scares and a creepiness that builds until some conflict-resolving final act. The Rite has all that, as well as one very good acting performance, but just as it builds into something truly powerful, it completely undercuts itself by introducing a largely irrelevant side character and asking another to behave totally against personality. For the love of Beelzebub, this could have been one of the all time greats. Instead, it’s just a missed opportunity.
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) grew up in a funeral home. He’s not scarred so much as trapped. There are only two options in his family after high school: becoming an undertaker or becoming a priest. He chooses the latter, much to the confusion of his very secular best friend. Four years later, he’s less than pleased with his choice. Rather than take his final vows, he decides to resign, at least until an unexpected and frightening event forces him to make another unwanted decision. This one leads to him to Rome for a two month long exorcism class taught by the Vatican. Unable to fight through his skepticism, the head priest (Ciaran Hinds) refers him to Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a seasoned exorcist with more than his share of doubts. At the moment, he’s treating a pregnant sixteen year old that’s been victimized by her share of horrors. Michael thinks she needs a shrink; the Father, also a licensed doctor, thinks she’s been possessed.
A lesser movie would have turned itself into a story of treating one seriously fucked-up teenager, but The Rite isn’t her story, nor is it the story of two men becoming friends. It’s actually more a battle of wills between two doubters that have dealt with that guilt in fundamentally different ways. Yes, in some ways those viewpoints come in opposition to each other, but mostly, The Rite is about each man coming to terms with his own belief system. Father Lucas is beaten down. He knows the Devil’s power all too well. It’s God that all too often leaves him without proof. Michael is the opposite. He’s not so much bothered by God’s power as he is convinced Satan is entirely lacking of his.
Somewhere near the end of the second act, something heinous happens to that sixteen year-old girl. It’s awful. I won’t reveal it here because you deserve to be surprised and because it may offend some of our readers, but when it does happen, it brings with it horrible consequences for both men. Father Lucas flies off the handle, Michael retreats into himself, and in these polarized reactions, a conflictive momentum builds into a brilliant climax that sees Anthony Hopkins turn in two or three of his best scenes in recent memory. Unfortunately, all of this is bogged down by the insertion of a plucky reporter (Alice Braga) and an inexplicably stupid scene that pauses all the inertia and sucks the life out of one of the characters. So goddamn close to something awesome.
It would be easy to cast stones at director Mikael Hafstrom because of this, but on the whole, he handles the material remarkably well. He has a keen eye for framing shots and building tension through religious and secular imagery. Even his handling of the dialogue scenes is a noted improvement when compared to most horror directors. There’s a certain intelligence that permeates throughout The Rite. These aren’t stupid, half-naked teenagers being cut up inside a farm house, nor are they religious nut jobs naively bloviating their best guesses as facts. Michael and Father Lucas are both highly intelligent searchers, pushing buttons and questioning the status quo because that’s what the best men often do. It’s nice to see Mikael Hafstrom let them.
Fuck it. I suspect most reviewers will tell you to stay away from The Rite, but if you’re interested in horror or the lingering guilt associated with religion, this film is worth your money. There are half a dozen or so scenes that I can’t shake out of my head. What’s better: a mediocre movie that never tries enough to leave an impression or an inconsistent one that ebbs and flows between very good and below average? Watch Antony Hopkins explain to you what Satan does to his children when he’s bored and then get back to me.