Hey, that was a crazy weekend! I thought for sure that 127 Hours (aka, Dude, Where’s My Arm?) would blow my mind, and that The Rite would just blow. After all, the former is a multi-Oscar-nominated biopic directed by Academy darling Danny Boyle, and the latter is a January horror movie starring Anthony Hopkins—who, like Robert DeNiro and Morgan Freeman apparently quit acting ten years ago and forgot to tell their agents.
No, despite the cheesy TV commercials and the seventeen percent rating on the Tomatometer, Mikael Hafstrom’s neat little movie managed to not only top the box office this weekend, but also provide me with an exciting moviegoing experience (I leave it to you to decide which feat was bigger).
Before I get into the review proper, I’d like to talk about that box office ranking. I have no scientific evidence to support the following theory; only my own years’ experience of attending most mainstream horror movies during opening weekend: Most people who show up for horror movies are idiots.
Please, put down your pitchforks. Quit composing your angry Letter to the Editor (whoever that is), and listen.
There is a wonderful, informal community of horror movie aficionados in this country; people who take the genre seriously and will watch just about anything because they are true fans of disturbed cinema. They’re the first to discover the edgy shit, as well as the shit shit, and they can evangelize the artistic importance of Pascal Laugier as earnestly as a street preacher can explain why watching his films will land you in Hell.
I’m not talking about them.
The appreciators couldn’t propel a movie like The Rite to a $15 million opening weekend (unless, maybe, it was in 3D); there just aren’t enough of them. There’s an overabundance, however, of stimulus-starved American cows whose asses are so considerable that there is apparently no room left in the cars for manners. They talk really loudly without saying anything interesting or funny; they check sports stats and text their friends on smartphones even after two or three on-screen warnings to please silence their devices and shut the fuck up. Most of all, they love, love, love to see their bovine brethren hacked to pieces on gargantuan screens—creatively, nakedly, cruelly.
These are the people I saw The Rite with, in a packed house on Saturday afternoon. Before the movie started, a forty-year-old white woman wearing a puffy sports jacket and nasty blonde dreadlocks high-fived the stranger sitting in front of her as they bonded over the terror they thought they were about to experience. She said something like, “Oooh, girl! This movie look scurry!”
Fortunately, The Rite is a talky picture, with lots of hushed dialogue and far fewer jump scares than you might expect. It’s an exorcism movie, after all, so there have to be lots of scary little girls and awesome CG monsters lurking around every corner, right?
Nope, this is a puzzling picture that falls somewhere between horror movie and Oscar-season think-piece. I attribute the January release date not to a lack of confidence in the quality, but to the sheer un-marketability of such a weird film.
So, what’s it about, already?
Glad you asked! Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) works in his father’s funeral home. He prepares bodies for presentation, and he’s good at his job, but doesn’t necessarily want to take over the family business. His dad, Istvan (Rutger Hauer), insists that he become either a mortician or a priest, and Michael’s lifetime of Catholic guilt drives him towards the priesthood.
Four years later, on the verge of becoming a man (of God), he decides that he doesn’t have enough faith to make the lifetime commitment. He e-mails a resignation letter to his advisor, Father Matthew (Toby Jones). Later that evening, when Father Matthew runs to catch up with Michael, he trips in the street, distracting a bicyclist who then gets hit by a truck. The rider dies in Micheal’s arms, but not before asking for absolution, which he provides.
A few days later, Father Matthew confronts Michael about his decision to leave and asks him to take a two-month sabbatical in Rome to study at a newly formed school for re-educating priests in the Rite of Exorcism. Michael refuses, and Father Matthew politely threatens to turn his divinity studies scholarship into a $100,000 loan (a modern day loaves and fishes miracle, I guess).
So, it’s off to Rome for Michael, where he learns about demons and rituals; he also challenges his professor, Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) on the faith/science conflict involved in exorcisms (like, how can one tell if a person is possessed by a demon or just plagued with paranoid schizophrenia?).
I particularly love this chunk of the movie, as it paints the Vatican in a light I’ve never seen. In most films of this kind, the institution is a monolith where dark secrets and darker motives conspire against naïve protagonists. In The Rite, the Vatican is more like God’s CIA, training field officers to fend off enemy threats. Actually, it’s more like Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Children from the X-Men movies. Michael and his classmates receive state-of-the-art lessons presented on large, futuristic touch-screen monitors, and the learning center defies the ancient-catacombs aesthetic one might expect.
Michael raises a bit too much of a stink, though, and Father Xavier sends him to a nearby neighborhood to study under Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins). Trevant is a famous exorcist and sometimes atheist who takes Michael under his kooky, cynical wing—inviting him to partake in a ritual ten minutes after they meet. They expel a demon from a pregnant local girl named Rosaria (Marta Gastini). Really, they just make the demon recede for awhile; as Trevant explains, the process of full demonic exorcism can take months to complete. Michael remains unconvinced, even when Rosaria spits up bloody nails.
The teacher/student rapport is The Rite’s main selling point. As you’ve probably figured out, it’s not long before Trevant falls victim to the demon and Michael must set aside his own fears and prejudices in order to save the old priest and himself. The Rite is neither original in its plot, nor is it particularly scary. But in this rare instance, that doesn’t matter.
The movie is about people questioning the things they believe and the reasons they believe them, and what that means in a world where greater forces really are battling for the souls of humanity. Whether or not you believe this stuff in real life, the movie makes a compelling argument for its own stance; and though I was a bit unsettled by the ending (which leaves rays of sunshine where others would leave a jump scare or hint of a sequel), I admired its consistency and conviction.
The Rite is a bit too long, and removing Alice Braga’s Angeline character would’ve been a great place to trim some fat; she’s a journalist studying at the exorcism school that Michael confides in and then recruits to help save Father Lucas’ soul. Braga does fine with the material, but I kept thinking that writers Michael Petroni and Matt Baglio stuck her in the movie to keep it from becoming like a two-man stage play adapted for the screen.
Aside from that, the performances and characters are solid all around—and that includes Hopkins. This is the meatiest I’ve seen him in years; he ventures only a little bit into camp territory when the demon comes out, but otherwise takes the material seriously. O’Donoghue is pretty terrific, too, injecting real frustration and emotion into a part that, in the wrong hands, just screams “Pouty, PG-13 Heartthrob” (though I’ll admit his look was distracting: I kept seeing him as a cross between Michael Fassbender and Chris Evans). And I can’t forget Jones and Hinds, both of whom take nothing parts and make them interesting enough for me to want to follow their characters around for a bit.
In fact, The Rite would make a great sci-fi/horror TV series. There’s definitely that vibe in places, and that’s not a bad thing. It could be a demon-of-the-week kind of deal, or a wacky conspiracy-laden show like Fringe—then again, the impulse might become to include more of the superfluous horror-movie clichés that seep into the edges of the movie, and that would be bad. But I digress. The Rite is smarter, headier, and better performed than it should be.
It’s also based on a true story (or as it’s phrased in the opening credits, “Suggested by a True Story”; that’s a new one). Again, whether or not you believe it’s possible that a pair of priests really drove demons out of people is irrelevant. What’s important is that Hafstrom creates a reality in which these things are possible and fills it with characters that you want to see prevail. It’s a far more compelling, surprising, and believable movie than 127 Hours, that’s for sure.