The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

21 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Based on a true story.” The Hollywood studio system loves to use those five words in an attempt to sell their products even further outside their target demographic. Even if the films they’re promoting only sound slightly similar to events that have taken place one way or another in reality, they will find some way to include that old familiar saying. (They may even remove a word and alter the tag to “inspired by true events.”) When it comes to horror films, particularly those that delve into the supernatural, using that tag creates a very thin line between what audiences are willing to believe and what they’re choosing to ignore. Take “The Conjuring,” which was marketed as “based on a true case files of the Warrens”—are we really supposed to believe that the events portrayed in that film really happened the way the filmmakers interpreted it?

That is why something as unique as Scott Derrickson’s (“Sinister,” “Doctor Strange”) underrated courtroom-drama/supernatural-thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” cannot be ignored.

From that title, what do you expect to see in this film? Exorcism. Demonic possession. Death. All sorts of odd, ominous, spiritual elements going bump in the night. And a girl named Emily Rose, who indeed is part of an exorcism. If the film were as simple as that, it’d be just another supernatural-horror film. But it’s not as simple as that. Why? Well, let me explain the story first.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is loosely based on a German woman named Anneliese Michel, who in the mid-1970s underwent a Catholic exorcism not long before her death. She had already been diagnosed with epilepsy and given many psychiatric treatments, neither of which proved effective. As her condition got worse and she claimed to hear voices (among other things), her family believed her to be possessed by a demon and thus called for two priests to perform the deed. When she died of dehydration and starvation, her parents and the priests were found guilty of negligent homicide. Since then, there have been posthumous notes that point to her being under the influence of a demonic being.

So then lies the question of whether or not Anneliese truly was possessed. Are the simplest answers always the true ones? Is the way I described the event sounding more credible? I believe that there are things in this world that we may never fully comprehend and that things are never as simple as all that. Maybe she was really sick, as her psychiatrists have testified. But what about the priests and the exorcism? The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t take the concept lightly, as far as I know; so, they must’ve had some idea that something was more wrong than trained professionals have thought. Then there’s the audiotape of the exorcism, which was handed in as evidence during the trial—it’s pretty unnerving and points more toward the possibility of something supernatural overtaking this girl, but it also could have been evidence of enabling the psychiatric torture she must have been going through also.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” knows this. How do I know it knows this? Because it chooses a brilliant method in telling the story—instead of going for a straightforward approach in telling this story, in which one side of the belief system is obviously right, it looks at it from both sides. This is a masterstroke of storytelling for this kind of film, because it allows us, the audience, to decide for ourselves what we choose to believe. The best part is the film doesn’t cheat in ways that make everything so easy for one to believe something in particular. It shows why something must have happened this way or why it also could’ve happened another way. One way is the simpler way of explaining, but is it the most true? That’s the beauty of it—we’re the judges.

The protagonist of the film is defense-attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), who has been brought on as the lawyer of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson). Father Moore is a priest on trial after the death of a teenage girl named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) following an exorcism he attempted onto her. The church doesn’t want the public attention, and so, he’s advised to plead guilty to reckless endangerment. But Father Moore doesn’t wish to plead guilty, because he wants Emily’s story to be told, not caring in the slightest about the consequences for himself. Thus, we get an intriguing court case, in which Bruner, an agnostic, is forced to carry through the ordeal and defend her client, and the prosecutor, a churchgoer named Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), has to prove against what can’t be easily proven. Emily Rose was possessed. Emily Rose was sick. Father Moore made things worse. Father Moore did too little. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there a “right”? Is there a “wrong”?

Taking influence from “Rashomon,” we’re told the story of Emily Rose through various perspectives, each being told from witnesses taking the stand in court. They all contradict each other, so that we see the supernatural side of things (and get our traditional modern supernatural horror movie this way) and then see what can easily be proven to non-believers. It’s a “look-at-it-this-way” scenario each time we cut back to the courtroom, and it really works.

Bruner represents the general moviegoer—someone who needs proof in order to believe in something. Father Moore assures her that “demons exist whether you believe in them or not,” and the further she dives deeper in this case, the more complicated things get. By the end of the film, she isn’t entirely a believer, but she has found herself open to more possibilities. This results in a remarkable, telling closing-statement that is so well-crafted, I found myself rewinding the film and listening to it several times. (I’m not kidding.)

Belief and proof do not always interconnect. There are differences between facts and possibilities. And what makes “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” special is that it stands by those two statements from beginning to end. That, plus the top-notch acting (especially from Linney and Carpenter), makes up for most of the film’s problems (such as the slow pacing and some standard horror tropes). The good outweighs the not-so-good here, and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a film that I think more people should talk about. “Based on a true story”? You be the judge.

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