Law and the Ordained
The Exorcism of Emily Rose arrives in timely fashion, just as the United States faces a fresh round of church vs. state at the turn of this millennium. Lately, one particularly visible front involves the Christian faction's assault on the teaching of evolution in schools. Creationists have rallied behind a theory called "intelligent design" to combat the idea of natural selection. Personally, I find the thought of teaching these ideas of religious origin in public schools distasteful, but its proponents are advocating a different approach: teach the scientific theory in class while offering students the choice to learn about alternatives by exposing them to their existence.
In the strict sense of state policy, an approach like this still shouldn't be allowed in public schools, but it's hard to argue with the idea behind it. After all, the celebration of freedom begins with having an open mind and allowing all ideas to be exchanged. It's under this presumption that The Exorcism of Emily Rose presents itself. A unique film in the guise of a horror movie and a courtroom drama, it supports a Christian viewpoint with a fair amount of restraint and an invitation to renew debates.
The movie revolves around a "true story" about a priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who is put on trial for the negligent homicide of a young woman, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). She died, it seems, because he allowed medical attention to be withheld from her in favor of an attempt at exorcism to cure her condition (was she possessed or psychotic and epileptic?). In the course of his defense, his lawyer, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), struggles to prove that earlier medical treatments were not helping and that Father Moore believed in the legitimacy of his actions.
The ideas of the supernatural and their influences are set against a modern cynical world -- The Exorcism of Emily Rose positions society as one that now readily equates religious beliefs to superstitions, banging the point home with a diocese that prefers to support one of its own from a distance and with a prosecuting attorney, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), who is known to be active in his church but who nevertheless attacks the defendant's ideas as hocus pocus. The movie sees religious faith as a victim in this age but doesn't overtly pity it -- the medical explanations offered are reasonable, even as the film tries its best to insert elements of doubt from various angles.
That doubt comes in the form of sensationalist re-enactment flashbacks, and this is where the movie suffers the most. Consciously in the shadow of filmdom's most famous exorcism movie, this new one overdoses on the hysterics -- suddenly the camera angles tilt, bob, and weave, while the orchestral cues to make the audience jump go on overdrive. Special effects create the visions of Emily Rose, and these are pretty effective, even freaky, but I'd imagine they'd be bone-chilling if they were delivered in relative silence. Smartly, however, the movie also throws in a few counter-flashbacks -- during the prosecution's refutations of these stories, some scary scenes are repeated under a different perspective and an air of normalcy, reminding us of the relativity of its own views (and also acknowledging its own cinematic techniques).
Because the movie doesn't include more of these counter-scenes, I don't think its agenda is to formulate a balanced viewpoint, but rather to create a scenario in which it is possible to believe in the increasingly unbelievable. Even with hyperbolized set pieces -- which, to the film's credit, are balanced by great acting from everyone involved -- it manages to state its case without overstating it, stacking the deck with some outrageous scenes while calming things down with the levelheadedness of Linney. In many ways, this is a defensive movie -- it comes at a time when the faithful feel they are visibly under fire and are now fighting back in equally visible ways.
Unlike the dogmatic The Passion of the Christ, The Exorcism of Emily Rose seeks to make an argument and acknowledges the opposition. In the battlefield of Hollywood, consider it an opening salvo now awaiting return fire from The Da Vinci Code.
(Released by Screen Gems Inc. and rated "PG-13" for thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing images.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.