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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) Home Video Review


Jennifer Carpenter plays the title character in The Exorcism of Emily Rose as a crazed beast who wants nothing more than to rip her own flesh to shreds.  In this way, she’s wholly relatable to any discerning audience member who gives this film a chance.  That’s not to say it’s awful; there’s a lot to like in this picture.  Sadly, ironically, none of it has to do with Emily Rose or the girl who plays her.

We’re told at the outset that the movie is based on a true story.  In reality, it’s more like the filmmakers are covering their bases by heading off the natural inclination to compare Emily Rose to The Exorcist.  “Hey,” we’re encouraged to think, “Since this really happened, there has to be something new here.”

In fairness, the way the story is told is more interesting than the story itself.  Rather than a straightforward exorcism movie, Emily Rose is about the trial of a priest who botched an exorcism, killing the girl he’d meant to save.  Much of the movie takes place during the ensuing negligent homicide hearings, in which power-hungry attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) must defend Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) against the peoples’ lawyer, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott).  Father Moore and the Rose family firmly believed that Emily was possessed, but Thomas’ case hinges on the idea that Emily suffered from undiagnosed psychotic epilepsy—and that her being denied medical care ultimately led to her death.

A moment ago, I accused the story of not being interesting, and you may disagree, based on my synopsis.  I was definitely hooked by the first half-hour of the film, and couldn’t wait to see where it went.  The problem is that the destination is kind of a cheat, especially if you’re a film lover and happen to absorb regular doses of news.

Had The Exorcism of Emily Rose been strictly a courtroom drama, it could have—with some fine tuning, message-wise—been a pretty compelling picture.  Linney, Wilkinson, and Scott are terrific, and it was a treat to see them personify varying points of view in the age-old Faith vs. Science debate.  This could have been a modern day Inherit the Wind; but for that to happen we would have had to have never seen Emily Rose in the flesh.

You see, to keep the movie from simply being a supernatural-themed episode of Law & Order, director Scott Derrickson and co-screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman pad out the running time with numerous flashbacks to the events leading up to Emily’s death.  They also explore the demonic incursions on Erin Bruner’s life after she signs on to the case.  Each of these choices is problematic on their own; together, they derail and undermine the best parts of the movie.

The haunting of Erin Bruner is especially ridiculous, and amounts to little more than her waking up at 3AM (the Witching Hour, naturally) to strange noises and eerie visions.  All of this roughly coincides with Father Moore’s Jacob-Marley-style warning that her involvement with the case would attract dark forces.

I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that annoyed me so much about these scenes until near the end of the film, when a doctor who attended the exorcism agrees to meet Erin.  They talk just long enough for him to say that he believes Father Moore’s assertions about demons being real, and then—BANG!—he’s struck and killed by a car.  The impact jolted me back to Jeffrey Jones’ death scene in The Devil’s Advocate.  My mind lapsed into Shyamalan Vertigo for a moment, replaying key scenes from both films on a psychic split-screen.  I came to in the middle of another courtroom scene, with the queasy sensation of having been duped.

But, hey, not every movie can have the same campy, creepy, Pacino-y goodness of The Devil’s Advocate—and I’ve gotta give Derrickson and company credit for trying, even if the experiment was a noble failure.

I found the flashbacks harder to forgive.

I’ve learned a very important lesson from years of horror movie consumption:  If you’re going to feature a Possessed Girl in your film, you’ve either got to dial the evil way back, or crank it up to eleven.  The scariest moments in The Exorcist don’t involve Linda Blair fucking herself with a crucifix (that’s just shock-blasphemy); they’re the scenes where the demon explains to the priests what its intentions are with the body of the sweet little girl it inhabits.  The calm, deep voice and glistening predatory eyes remind us that the cruelest evil is sinister, and not always theatrical.

On the other end of the spectrum is The Evil Dead, where the main character must fight the violent, sadistic bodies of his three best friends.  The sheer numbers and creativity of the gore give the audience the sense that good will not only likely fail against evil, but that the protagonist is just a fly being batted around by the world’s meanest cat.

In the middle, we have The Exorcism of Emily Rose.  On release, much was made of Jennifer Carpenter’s physical performance.  The filmmakers considered her a godsend for the many ways in which she could contort her body into unnatural shapes.  And it is impressive to watch her limbs shoot out at chilling angles; but that’s the most interesting part of her take on the Possessed Girl.  The rest of Carpenter’s scenes are about crying and screaming and eating bugs.  We’ve seen it before, executed more convincingly.  This film compelled me to laugh more than to shriek.

Oddly enough, what undoes Carpenter’s portrayal—and the entire story—is the psychotic epilepsy angle.  Because this idea is introduced early, before the flashbacks get into full swing, it’s impossible to watch the “possession” scenes without thinking, “Oh, this could just be a grand mal seizure.”

In fact, Erin Bruner develops a late-stage defense of Father Moore based on the conceit that it doesn’t matter whether or not Emily was possessed; that her belief in God and the Devil was powerful enough that whatever medical problems were involved could not have been overcome without a psychological breakthrough (i.e. an exorcism).

So, by film’s end we have the director, the screenwriters, and most of the characters telling us that Emily Rose might not have been infested with demons—while at the same time presenting us with loud bumps in the night and mysterious hooded figures meant to convince us that we’re watching a scary horror movie.

For me, the nail in the coffin was Father Moore’s insistence that he tell Emily’s story to the world by taking the witness stand during his highly publicized trial.  This is a recurring plot point, so I figured there would be some big revelation, perhaps a cool twist that would retroactively validate all the bullshit.

No, the big story is that the Virgin Mary appeared to Emily at the height of her possession and offered her a release.  Emily declined, and suffered a martyr’s death.  This tale of self-sacrifice in the name of The Lord, Father Moore believed, needed to be shared with the world in order to create more believers.

Here’s the rub: The “true” story on which this movie is based happened in 1976.  Perhaps if The Exorcism of Emily Rose had been a late-70s period piece, I might have grudgingly bought the conceit.  But this film is set in 2005, the era of cell phones, Google, and Christopher Hitchens.  The idea that anyone would find this story so compelling as to give their life to Jesus is hard to swallow (especially when it paints His father as the kind of douchebag who would let six demons terrorize a 19-year-old Christian farm girl, just to get on the 6 o’clock news).

Then again, I’m a cynic.  Maybe I should look up the real-life Father Moore and ask if he could help get this weird, lazy movie out of my system.