“Based on a true story.”
So opens “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” a demonic-possession knock off in the tradition of “The Exorcist.” But unlike that legendary horror classic, these five words are probably scarier than the movie itself. In a time when Hollywood will slap this label on just about any film to boost its reality-age appeal (regardless of whether it’s true or not), it’s clear that “Rose” needed all the help it could get.
The film opens during the trial of Catholic priest Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson, “Batman Begins”) who is accused of killing Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter, “White Chicks”). Her story is told through a series of flashbacks, beginning when the 19-year-old college freshman is alone in her dorm room and believes a demonic spirit has possessed her.
After contemporary Western medicine fails to help her “condition,” her family seeks the help of Moore, their parish’s priest. At the request of Emily herself, he performs on her an exorcism which fails. But then Emily dies, and Moore is blamed. Assigned to defend him is the exceptionally ambitious, but hard-drinking attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney, “Love Actually”).
This already flimsy material is stretched a bit too thin and the film has one too many sluggish digressions. But the acting ensemble, led by Academy Award-nominees Linney and Wilkinson, does an admirable job with what little they had to go on. In particular, Linney’s projection of a steely lawyer with a chip on her shoulder is smarter and more convincing than the film warrants; her performance carries the movie.
“Rose” never tries to convince us that demons exist or that Rose was actually possessed; instead, the film tiptoes around these issues, going for an aura of ambiguity that leaves it both disjointed and muddled. The subject of the film is honorable – it documents one of the only possessions officially recognized by the Catholic Church in contemporary history – but since the movie makes no attempt to convince us of the validity of Rose’s possession, it ends up as little more than a standard horror yarn we have seen time and time again.
What’s more, the film is grossly indecisive and uneven as it vacillates between courtroom drama and classic horror; it’s a scattered, overlong, convoluted mess. The courtroom drama packs no real punch because the characters are never fully developed, and the horror isn’t really scary because of the restrictive PG-13 rating. Instead, the film settles for shots of Emily running around her college campus and imagining that the face of every person she passes is somehow demonically distorted (the slipshod F/X shots often make these scenes more comical than scary). If this summer’s smash hit “Wedding Crashers” is any indication, it’s often better to take a risk on the harsher rating than timidly avoid a studio’s worst nightmare: an R-rated film.
Instead of going for all-out thrills, “Rose” tries, rather unsuccessfully, to endow itself with genuine thematic significance as it attempts to discredit Western medicine and lawyers. The film does sometimes evoke an eerie sense of relevance, especially in the courtroom scenes, but this is lost as soon as it cuts to yet another flashback of Rose frantically running around and shrieking in the rain. These scenes will no doubt assuage the target audience (tweens looking for a cheap thrill), but until studios will permit a psychological horror movie without all the “Gotcha!”-type silliness, we’ll be stuck with movies like “Emily Rose”: soft horror with an identity crisis.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars