Catholic commentary on culture, media, and politics.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

What if we held an exorcism and no one brought proper wrist restraints?

That's Jennifer Carpenter in the harrowing role of Emily in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I saw Friday night. My jaw is still on the floor, not because it's a flawless movie but because of what co-writer/director Scott Derrickson got away with: a heroic, honest, humble Catholic priest, an unambiguous exposition of good vs evil, a Marian apparition as plot device, and an engaging exploration of the ideas hinted at by William Friedkin's The Exorcist.

Comparisons to the 1973 classic are inevitable, and Scott Derrickson includes a nod to its famous setting (a supine girl restrained on her bed). But his deft treatment of the background material, and his command of the story elements, illustrate that The Exorcism of Emily Rose is about ideas as much as visual jolts.

For a relatively new director, he deserves a lot of credit for fighting for, and sticking to, an inherently pro-Catholic angle, and for successfully recruiting the decidely secular-minded lead actors Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson to play the defense attorney and priest, respectively. (Sidebar: My friend Barbara Nicolosi over at Church of the Masses knows Scott Derrickson, an Evangelical who, Barbara affectionately taunts, may be in danger of crossing the Tiber. She posted a snippet from the LA Daily News that showcases how the two stars are giving the ol' barge pole treatment to the movie's premise. Sigh.)

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is told without big special effects. There are no pea soup displays, no head-spinning, and no obscene language. Rather, the moments of hair-raising horror come at you from the side door. What gets to you is how "normal," in the sense of plausible, it all seems. (In one scene before a church altar, Emily's pupils are shown suddenly dilating -- just what'd you'd expect in the presence of darkness, I thought.)

Tom Wilkinson's performance as Father Richard Moore is pleasingly under-the-top, although, to be accurate, some of his scenes are clunkily written. No matter. As an actor, Wilkinson is one of those few whose expressive eyes can tell volumes with very few lines. (I can still see those sad, conflicted eyes gazing at Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom.) Here, his Father Moore is not the urbane Jesuit Father Karras of The Exorcist. He's dishevelled around the edges, dowdy. You can easily see him at Tim Horton's sipping a coffee talking about the game. (That's Dunkin Donuts for Yankee readers.) In believing so completely in his mission, Moore is the anti-Karras.

Sound being the second most tactile of the senses, the earlier movie created a sensation largely though audio effects, winning the Best Sound Oscar. It's true that Linda Blair couldn't have looked scarier, but I argue it was the vocal work of the unsung Mercedes McCambridge (who can forget "Your mother's in here, Damien") that held delivered the movie's impact.

But The Exorcism of Emily Rose aims not primarily to depict outward manifestations of evil, but, as Father Moore himself tells his counsel, "to tell Emily's story," and to account for the spiritual battle that raged invisibly behind the scenes. It is based on a case in Bavaria in the late 1970s involving a 22-year-old named Anneliese Michel, in which the attending priest was charged in her death following a failed exorcism.

The decision to enshrine the "true life" details of the story in the credits surely adds to the overall effect. Viewers are invited to identify with either the skeptical defense attorney (Laura Linney as Erin Bruner); the sacrastic, but apparent church-going prosecutor (a miscast Campbell Scott, whose Ethan Thomas plays more like an uptight accountant than a charismatic people's advocate); or with the believing family and trusted priest. Smart marketing, that.

The film explores all sides of the event and, I think, comes down gently on the pro-Catholic side. A few minor gripes: We get no sense of how Emily became enmeshed in the demonic possession to begin with. I won't give away anything, but an apparition scene tries to explain how it ends the way it does. But I was hoping for a clue as to how it began. In The Exorcist, we saw that Regan dabbled with a Ouija Board; Emily only eats cafeteria food.

Second, my post title is meant to be playful. But it seems to me that an experienced exorcist would have shown up with something more durable than a thin cotton hankie to restrain an athletic 22-year-old who can writhe and contort with the best of 'em. Third, Ms. Bruner's wrap-up speech in the courtroom bore the faint whiff of the pulpit, almost turning into a Billy Graham moment. Then again, its true that today's audiences, especially the under-23 market, often need hand-holding and overt explanations.

In all, we should be grateful that, thanks in large part to Mel Gibson and the The Passion of the Christ phenomenon, Hollywood is beginning to recalibrate its standard operating procedures toward "organized religion." The Exorcism of Emily Rose had a $30 million opening weekend and still holds a strong second behind Just Like Heaven. (They don't call it "Show Art.")

Bring a friend and see it. And pray for its talented director.


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