Art-film cast can't free `Exorcism' of troubles

Movie Review

September 09, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Exorcism of Emily Rose might as well take place in giant paperweights. Every now and then director Scott Derrickson shakes up some snowflakes for eerie or funereal effect. But the action unfolds in a vacuum. The selling point of this piece of "serious" horror is that it's rooted in fact. Unfortunately, nothing in it rings with the faintest tinkle of truth.

Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman base their script on the story of a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) tried for negligent homicide. A 19-year-old girl (Jennifer Carpenter) died when he attempted to free her from Satanic possession. The moviemakers mean to show the plausibility of his beliefs. It's so enervated and airless, it mostly illustrates the perils of filming a U.S. incident in Canada - especially with a director who relies on Halloween-style "Boos!" for scares and self-important huffs and puffs for the climactic moments of a trial.

The valiant Laura Linney, as the priest's attorney, heads an overqualified art-film cast. They try to create an atmosphere with their foggy breath alone. Emily supposedly succumbed to demons when she left her isolated farm for college. But the Rose homestead, cluttered with sad religious artifacts, comes off as any old dark house from any rural horror film. Her mother doesn't approve of dancing. Is the family part of some Mel Gibson's-dad-like sect? Or are they just a bunch of moralistic loners? If the director knows, he doesn't tell. And Emily attends the oddest city university ever put on film. The demons first invade her space when her roommate goes away and there isn't a security guard or resident grad student in sight.

Half the movie unfolds in the courtroom where Linney, an agnostic, pushes a defense based on the cultural validity of beliefs in spiritual possession. Derrickson aims for the cappuccino crowd by juxtaposing civilized legal battles with the slam-bang Manichean wrestling bouts of the flashbacks.

Too bad the director stacks his tarot cards in favor of the supernatural. Linney starts to get visitations of her own. And the main prosecution witnesses are an incompetent college doctor (Ken Welsh) who treated Emily for epilepsy on flimsy medical evidence and a smug expert (Henry Czerny) who advances his own self-coined diagnosis of "psychotic epileptic disorder."

Czerny does a spiffy riff on doctors afflicted with the God syndrome - he has a degree or two from Johns Hopkins. Yet there's too bald a contrast between him and the elegant anthropologist (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who testifies in the priest's defense. Campbell Scott does everything but twirl his mustache as the cruel Methodist prosecutor. What's worse, Carpenter looks way older than 19, and acts grotesquely awkward even before Lucifer gets inside of her. Mary Beth Hurt has so little to do as the judge, she must have had lots of time to wonder what she and her husband, Paul Schrader, who directed Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, would discuss after each day's shooting.

Not even a class cast can overcome clunky dialogue. Emily's college boyfriend (Joshua Close) says that even though a lot of their time together was a nightmare, he doesn't regret any of it. I, however, regretted at least 100 minutes of The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter, Campbell Scott

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Rated PG-13

Released by Screen Gems

Time 118 minutes

SUN SCORE * 1/2 (1 1/2 STARS)

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