Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Director: Scott Derrickson                                    Writers: Scott Derrickson & Paul Boardman
Film Score: Christopher Young                             Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter and Mary Beth Hurt

I remember this film receiving a lot of publicity when it was first released, enough so that I purchased the DVD shortly after it came out. Watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose alone, on a winter’s night, in the dark, was a fairly creepy experience. But watching it now, a decade and a half later, in the daytime during the summer, it wasn’t really frightening at all . . . or even very interesting for that matter. Director Scott Derrickson called the film a cross between a courtroom drama and a horror film and he’s exactly right, but in the process it embraces neither genre fully and because of that it lacks the major impact of films like The Exorcist or A Few Good Men. The screenplay is based on the true story of a young German woman named Anneliese Michel who died in the same way in the mid nineteen seventies. But this is just another aspect of the film that undermines it’s potential. True stories in Hollywood have the tendency to short circuit the creative process and enslave the story to the “facts.” Derrickson and co-writer Paul Boardman seemed to have avoided the worst of these pitfalls--Anneliese Michel underwent sixty-seven exorcisms, while Emily Rose endures only one--but there’s still a strong sense that their creativity was inhibited to a great degree by a desire to conform to other aspects of the true story.

The film opens on a desolate patch of farmland, dead corn stalks, pumpkins in the garden, and a timid Terence Kelly knocking on the front door of a house that would give Norman Bates the creeps. Turns out Kelly is the medical examiner called by the police, and after his examination he declares that the dead girl upstairs did not die of natural causes. Then the police arrest priest Tom Wilkinson. The case is a tough one for D.A. Julian Christopher because they’re trying to convict a holy man of murder, and he finally selects the super religious super lawyer Campbell Scott to prosecute. Meanwhile the law firm representing the church opts for Laura Linney, who demands a partnership for taking on the case. Wilkinson, as expected, refuses to plead guilty, claiming his only desire is to tell Emily’s story. At the same time, Linney wants a free hand to use whatever tactics it takes to get him an acquittal--and her partnership. As a result, the story of Emily, played by Jennifer Carpenter, is told in flashback throughout the film, beginning with the mother, Marilyn Norry, telling about Carpenter going away to college. The story emerges of a young girl who had grown up in an ultra conservative Catholic home and, once on her own at college, begins to experience the type of supernatural horrors described by her religion. The prosecution’s case is a simple one: the doctor at the university, Kenneth Welsh, tested Carpenter for epilepsy and found positive results, but Carpenter refused the treatment on the advice of Wilkinson. Then his exorcism went wrong and killed her.

The case for Linney is a lot more complicated because of who her client is. One of the interesting dichotomies the film sets up is that the man prosecuting Wilkinson is a devout Christian, and yet Campbell Scott wants to see the priest behind bars for what he sees as an abuse of power and a disregard for human life. Laura Linney, on the other hand, is an admitted agnostic who is tasked with defending a man of the cloth. She has real trouble when he begins warning her that evil forces are at work in the trial and she fears her client might be mentally unbalanced, but couched in religious terms his delusions have essentially been condoned by society. Nevertheless, because the medical evidence is so strong, Linney ultimately decides that the only way to win the case is to double down on possession as a legitimate cause for Carpenter’s condition, therefore absolving Wilkinson of any negligence or responsibility for her death. Linney and Wilkinson are film veterans and acquit themselves as one would expect. Campbell Scott is probably best known for his appearance two years later as the pretentious professor in Music and Lyrics and doesn’t bring a lot to the proceedings, but he’s not bad either. Jennifer Carpenter had only made a few films before being cast in this one, and was a solid if unexceptional choice. Finally, the great Mary Beth Hurt as the presiding judge at the trial rounds out the main cast.

If there’s one place where the film excels it is in the direction of the actors by Scott Derrickson. Both Linney and Wilkinson have a tendency to overact in their films, but since they’re so good it sort of works. But here, Derrickson has them both on a very short leash, limiting their range in the service of the film as a whole. There are no big emotional scenes and no histrionics--even the scenes where the two are visited by evil spirits are underplayed to an impressive degree. The rationale seems to be to provide a distinct contrast between the horrors that Carpenter undergoes and the rest of the film. And it’s a great strategy, as Linney delivers arguably her best performance on film. The tinting of the visuals washed out any vibrant colors and gives the film a terrific wintertime feel. And the special effects are quite good, seamlessly transforming normal faces into horrifying apparitions with black, bleeding eyes and hissing, gaping mouths. But the most impressive aspect of the film is that it doesn’t take sides. The argument made in the courtroom is left for the viewer to decide, and the validity of neither view is pushed to the fore as the “right” one. Ironically, it’s probably one of the things that audiences found lacking in the film, but for me it was a perfect way to go. The Hollywood expectation is that either Linney will find religion or Wilkinson will lose his faith. But neither happens, and it’s quite a pleasant surprise and ultimately what makes The Exorcism of Emily Rose worth watching.

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