“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a film with the word ‘earnest’ stamped all over it, being based on a true story and with a two-hour running time rarely seen in the modern horror genre. Indeed, despite the predictable tweaks made to the source material, namely relocating the action from Germany to American soil and the liberal reinterpreting of its cast of characters, the film strives to remain true, with few concessions made to the usual teen demographic. As a result, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” stands out as one of the more interesting and thoughtful films of its type, taking a rational and even handed approach to the supernatural in a way which genuinely attempts to explore its place in the modern world. This is combined with some bleak atmospherics and a good number of shocks which, although frequently culled from “The Exorcist” make for some genuinely chilling scenes.
The film, unusual for horror, takes place for the most part in a courtroom, and after a creepy opening which sets the scene with the discovery of the titular Emily’s body, is comprised mostly of flashbacks, played off against a growing evil directed at those involved with the case. The court proceedings are based upon a charge of negligence against Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), a priest who cared for, and tried to save Emily through exorcism after being convinced that she was beyond the help of modern medicine. In opposite corners are two lawyers, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an agnostic assigned to defend Moore, and Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a decidedly self-righteous man of faith who seems personally offended by the actions of the accused. As the trial progresses and the incredible story unfold, the evidence is such that the verdict hangs upon authenticating the very existence of demons, and of the supernatural itself.
The courtroom setting works very well, giving “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” a realistic grounding which serves to make its horrific elements all the more believable and frightening. The flashback structure is also used well, and director Scott Derrickson (who previously bored genre fans with “Hellraiser: Inferno”) allows the events of both past and present to develop in an engaging fashion. The film often presents both sides of the argument, on one hand showing Emily as demonically possessed, and on the other portraying her with equal conviction as an unfortunate girl with a tragic medical condition.
Through this, the film covers some fascinating ground in a stimulating manner, and with some moments of genuine wit and intelligence, exploring not so much the divide between good and evil as that between science and faith. There is a fair amount of ambiguity to the plot, which is essentially without a central villain, this being left up to the viewer to decide. Of course, it is the supernatural elements of the plot which receive the most attention, with the use of CGI for some startling demonic faces, and a remarkably physical and harrowing performance from Jennifer Carpenter as Emily. However, these show a mature sense of restraint and never threaten to disrupt the film’s sincere and determinedly rational mood.
This is not to suggest that “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is dull, as Derrickson keeps things moving at a fast pace, and ensures that the twin narratives are filled with scares. The film is very atmospheric, with grim, dark visuals, and being the closest in a long line of wretched sequels and cheap imitations to reproducing the look and feel of the original “The Exorcist”. Thankfully, the gripping plot and the fascinating questions raised by the film more than makes up for the essential familiarity of the scenario.
In fact, the only real problem with the film comes with its conclusion which, perhaps inevitable for a film which endeavours to keep an open mind, lacks any real sense of closure and comes off as a slight disappointment. Although to a certain extent it provides answers, it frustrates by sitting on the fence and failing to deliver in a way which the viewer, after such a long running time may feel they deserve.
Despite this, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is easily one of the best horror films of the year, and is a rare display of intelligence in a genre which is increasingly aimed at the lowest common denominator. Whatever the beliefs of the viewer, the film bravely engages theological issues without getting entangled in religious jargon or fervour. And as a plus, it also offers a pleasingly old fashioned scare show that lingers long after the credits have rolled.
Scott Derrickson (director) / Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson (screenplay)
CAST: Laura Linney …. Erin Bruner
Tom Wilkinson …. Father Moore
Campbell Scott …. Ethan Thomas
Jennifer Carpenter …. Emily Rose
Colm Feore …. Karl Gunderson