In what is destined to become one of the classic films of the last few decades, The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey as uber-villian Keyser Soze utters the unforgettable line: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Scott Derrickson, writer/director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, must have agreed with Soze’s assessment because he has made it his business to convince modern movie-goers that the devil does exist.
Ostensibly based on the true story of a Bavarian girl named Annaliese Michel, Emily Rose is the story of an innocent farm girl away at her first year of college. But rather than being corrupted by deviant frat boys or post-modern professors like most college freshmen, Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) is corrupted by Satan himself. At first she believes that her problem is physical, but once medical options are exhausted, Emily turns to her parish priest, Father Moore, to help her fight her affliction with a different kind of power. Unfortunately, as we learn in the opening scenes, Emily’s struggle does not end well, and the priest who sought to help her is now being charged as a charlatan and mystic, on trial for negligent homicide.
Though the flashbacks to Emily’s Hell on Earth are every bit as jolting and shriek-worthy as any scary movie (in fact, more so, thanks to a completely haunting and special-effects-free performance by Carpenter), the courtroom scenes keep the film from devolving into the kind of schlock horror its trailer seemed to promise. As Fr. Moore’s defense attorney Erin Braun (Laura Linney) struggles with how to approach a defense she doesn’t believe in, she invites atheists and agnostics to consider whether the religious understanding of problems like Emily’s might not be a more honest one.
Her counterpart at the prosecution desk, however, poses entirely different questions to believers in the audience. Though the puritanically-named Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) claims Methodism, his demeanor suggests a sort of bloodless, academic faith. In this, he seems to represent a certain wing of Christianity that is reluctant to lend any weight to occurrences that, while perfectly biblical, are also supernatural. Through Ethan, Derrickson encourages followers of a dry, contemporary Christianity to inquire about the cost of discounting evil--if malevolent spirits are not afoot in the world, then what did happen to Emily Rose, and if the Devil doesn’t exist, then what’s the use of God?
Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide To Having It All
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