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?
A movie about exorcism may seem like rather flashy material for bringing up such weighty issues, but if you take the Bible at its word, as I assume many readers of this publication do, then the question of when and how often demonic possession is misconstrued as a psychological disorder is a legitimate one. And its cultural implications need not only apply to something as dramatic as possession.
Is it possible, for example, that depression is sometimes treated as a physical condition when it is more symptomatic of a spiritual sickness—of the malaise that comes from living a purposeless life? Or are the behaviors we now label “compulsive” (over-eating, over-drinking, over-copulating) nothing more than old-fashioned sin? When one of Linney’s colleagues suggests that possession only occurs in Third-World cultures because they still have primitive superstitions, Linney counters, “Is that it? Or is it that we’ve given the condition a socially-acceptable term while they look at it and call it by its right name?” Movie-goers may ultimately decide they agree with the colleague, but chances are Emily Rose will make them give serious consideration to the alternative.
This is not to say that Emily Rose is a perfect vehicle to sublimity. Derrickson gives into a few hokey elements and one or two nagging plot holes, like why Emily’s parents shouldn’t be as legally culpable as Father Moore. Ambience has its place in generating fear, but the entire purpose of Emily Rose was to place supernatural occurrences in the real world of the courtroom so that we experience the possibility that they’re authentic. Relying on clichés like creaking doors, constant drizzle, and barely-glimpsed shadows undercuts this endeavor. At several points I wondered where on earth this college was that it never stopped raining there. But if audiences come away disappointed from The Exorcism of Emily Rose, it will mostly be the fault of Sony’s marketing team who advertised the film (no doubt with the lucrative teen demographic in mind) as one in a line of typical scream fests that return to screens every fall. It would be a shame if their approach keeps older, more thoughtful viewers away.
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Emily Rose will doubtlessly pose doctrinal problems for audiences from denominational backgrounds other than Catholicism, yet the film’s underlying themes speak to people of faith whether they believe Emily was possessed or not. The most affecting moments of the film don’t involve the Virgin Mary, the Crucifix, the Stigmata or any other traditionally Catholic symbol. Instead, they are those moments that unify us in our belief, such as when Father Moore stands in front of the judge to receive his sentence only to find that though the jury has found him guilty, they recommend a sentence of “time served.” “Father Moore,” instructs the judge with gravity, “you are guilty…and you are free.” Pray God that we all receive that same sentence on Judgment Day.