High profile defense attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney, "Kinsey") is dismayed when her boss (Colm Feore, "The Chronicles of Riddick") asks her to take a case for the Catholic Archdiocese, a potentially huge embarrassment for the Church in which one of their own, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson, "Batman Begins"), is accused of negligent homicide while attempting to conduct "The Exorcism of Emily Rose."
Boy, the words 'Based on a true story' sure must have a broad legal definition. If you visit Sony's web site for this film, you'll be told that Emily Rose was a girl who could have been your sister and be shown photographs of newspaper accounts of her exorcism and Father Moore's negligent manslaughter trial and even a police report transcript from Henderson, Indiana. But the true events that have 'inspired' this film are about a girl called Anneliese Michel who lived and died in Germany. The trial, lawyers, witnesses and priest depicted in this film are all total fabrications. The filmmakers would also have us believe, according to end credit epilogues, that their motivations in making this movie was to honor 'Emily Rose' and the sacrifice she presumably made for us. So, attempting to discount my disgust with Sony's marketing of this film, the following review will treat the movie as a total fiction, which should immediately discount much of its draw - who needs another fictitious exorcism movie if there is no new spin on the material?
Attempting to recall the iconic poster art of "The Exorcist," the film opens with a black coated and hatted man approaching the door of a remote house in a snowy landscape (it should be noted that this film's poster image depicts Emily like Jesus in Gethsemane). No one answers, until a man, Father Moore as it turns out, looks sadly out of an upstairs window. It is the medical examiner, who pronounces to the assembled family and priest that he cannot conclusively rule that Emily's death was by natural causes. When Erin, who has agreed to the Archiodese's demand that she not put her client on the stand, meets Moore (a reference to Sir Thomas More?) in his jail cell, he only agrees to accept her help if he is allowed to tell Emily's story. Moore says his only interest in the trial results are that people know what happened to Emily - and why. He also warns Erin that 'dark forces' will be threatening her.
The standard trial film structure, where the events leading up to the case are shown in flashback as the trial progresses, is used, but in this case, we're to believe that the defense attorney learns much of it as we do. To add a demonic dash of horror to the present, the agnostic Bruner's lack of faith is challenged by eerie goings on from the start which always occur at 3 a.m., a time Moore later testifies is Lucifer's mocking reversal of Christ's time of death. During the daytime, she's plagued by the prosecuting attorney (Campbell Scott, "Saint Ralph"), who finds the idea that she's basing her defense on the possibility that Emily may indeed have been possessed silly. Each time he refutes her evidence, a flashback is rerun, showing events in a manner which supports the psychotic epilepsy rationale. Mary Beth Hurt ("The Family Man") is the judge who must balance the sarcasm of science with the sideshow aspects of the supernatural.
Director Scott Derrickson ("Hellraiser: Inferno") does serve up a jolt or two, most convincingly when Emily's college boyfriend Jason (Joshua Close, "K-19: The Widowmaker") awakens to find the girl he's been protecting twisted on the floor like an abstract sculpture. Reportedly actress Jennifer Carpenter ("White Chicks") is adept with physical contortion and vocal manipulations which the director amply utilizes. But his courtroom scenes are extremely cliched, only occasionally enlivened by Campbell Scott's exasperation, and the big shock that is supposed to be delivered by the death of a witness plays like a cheap outtake from "The Omen" or "Rosemary's Baby," all the more so because of its obvious manufacture (true stories don't come with such cliched plot points). The film's biggest failing is the complete muddle that is its climax, the moment Moore keeps promising will explain *why* Emily was possessed when she was also supposed to be touched by God. The testimony of the first witness, a home town neighbor of the Roses, hints that Emily's attendance at a school dance was something bad, something her mother would disapprove of, but instead of building on that implication, we get an out of the blue visitation with a directive which is unclear until it is explained later. Derrickson and his coscreenwriter Paul Harris Boardman (both of "Urban Legends: Final Cut") clearly have shaped their material to favor the case's possession explanation, while online resources on the real case strongly suggest otherwise. Their inclusion of a black cloaked figure which taunts Moore is hogwash of the highest degree, a scary movie tactic which exploits a girl's tragic death.
Of the cast, it is the actors playing voices of reason who fare best. Both Campbell Scott and Mary Beth Hurt enliven their scenes. Linney's participation reminds of her first substantial role in the far better "Primal Fear," a legal thriller about an altar boy accused of murdering a priest and Tom Wilkinson's performance seems reluctant. Rather high in the credits is Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of sand and Fog"), but her small role as a witness for the defense lends more credence to the prosecution, an effect I believe was unintended.
The production generally looks and sounds good, red lighting giving credence to demonic presence, suggesting the smell of burning which is integral to three scenes. The film's PG-13 rating negates the ferocity of "The Exorcist," although Carpenter still puts the exorcism scene across. Hallucinogenic imagery of people and things becoming demonic are obvious CGI effects which have been seen before, though, and a major continuity gaffe involving Linney's hair coloring is quite noticeable (it lightens appreciably during two sequences set in her bedroom).
"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" may be one of the most extreme examples of a film's marketing promising one thing, yet delivering another. It's just another in the string of subpar exorcism movies which followed 1973's never-rivalled "The Exorcist," gussied up with an A-list cast and dishonest marketing. (And for those who continue to believe that "The Exorcist" itself was based on a true story, here's an online investigative piece that should prove most illuminating: http://www.strangemag.com/exorcistpage1.html.)
A small town coroner is called to determine the cause of death of a young woman but what he comes upon makes it painfully apparent that she did not dies of natural causes in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”
Don’t be fooled by the title of this film. If you think that you are going to get a horrific repeat of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” then you are in for a rude surprise. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” tries to be both a horror movie and a supernaturally charged courtroom drama. It does neither particularly well.
Laura Linney plays Erin Bruner, a high-powered attorney fresh off a big win in a prestigious case where she was instrumental in clearing her wealthy client of murder. Her boss, Karl Gunderson (Colm Feore), promises her full partnership in his law firm if she will take on another controversial case: a Catholic priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), is charged with negligent homicide in the death of one Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), a young woman he claims was possessed by a demon, maybe Lucifer himself. The Church, which sanctioned the priest to perform an exorcism on the 19-year old, wants the trial over as quickly and quietly as possible. Father Moore, though, wants to tell Emily’s story for all to hear.
This begins a hybrid tale that tries to scare the viewer while making him/her think about the supernatural world where the Devil’s minion walk the earth possessing innocents for their master. Sound’s pretty scary but the bulk of the movie takes place in the courtroom and not enough of it deals with Emily’s possession and Father Moore’s attempt to free her from the malevolent demon inhabiting her tortured body.
The filmmakers claim that “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is based on a true store, even wrapping things up with the typical what-happened-to-the-players-when-it-was-all-over spiel. This is a case, though, where they should say it is “loosely based on a true story and we took every liberty we could in making it.”
Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson, sharing scribe duties with Paul Harris Boardman, tries to have it all with his courtroom drama nee horror story but fails on both fronts. The courtroom side of the story, which is about three-fourth of the film, delves into the legal ramifications of Moore’s accused negligence and toys with the state accepting demonic possession as a legitimate legal condition. This bit reminded me of a low level “Inherit the Wind” but, instead of arguing natural selection and evolution versus divine creation, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” tries to make it the earthly the battle between Heaven and Hell. These are big shoes that it doesn’t come close to filling.
The veteran cast is not given much by way of characters to work with. Laura Linney is unconvincing as the ambitious Erin Brunner. I found myself not caring for her character or whether she wins or loses. Tom Wilkinson is left in the woods as the priest who, with the permission of his superiors in the Church, takes on the daunting task of combat with the Devil’s demon. This should be the scare-the-beejeezus-out-of-us part of the movie but, except for feeling bad for the title character, does nothing to frighten – unless you call the usual cat jumping out of the dark scary. There is little exorcism in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”
Campbell Scott, as the disbelieving and snide prosecuting attorney, is hampered by having to make silly declarations and objections through the course of the trial. The character is more caricature than person and Scott, a usually reliable character actor, does nothing with the role. Jennifer Carpenter has the thankless role as the victim of Satan and there is little the actress can do to make it full. She does garner your sympathy, something more than I can say for the rest of the cast.
Techs are on par with a made-for-television movie and that is pretty much where “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” should be. I strongly recommend not spending your hard earned money to see this at the theater. I wouldn’t even spend the couple of bucks to rent it when it (quickly) comes out on video. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t even bother to see it at all. Courtroom drama and horror movie fans will be sorely disappointed. I give it a C-.
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