The Exorcism of Emily Rose begins on an ominously moody note. A man comes to a farm covered in snow and frost, and for a moment, he simply observes the environment around him. Cats run by in the distance. Wasps buzz around a nest attached to the local farmhouse. A priest looks out from a window on the top floor. Then a woman steps outside and asks, "You're the medical examiner?" The man comes inside, walks upstairs, and enters a bedroom—and before the door closes, we catch a glimpse of a police officer's badge.
This sequence is impressive partly because it relies so strongly on visuals. Most of the rest of the film, for better or worse, is preoccupied with words, and even its strongest visual moments are guided by, and framed within, the narration of its characters. The movie is loosely based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German student who believed she was possessed by demons, and whose death during an attempted exorcism in the 1970s led to a court case in which two priests were convicted of negligent manslaughter. So the film—which changes numerous details, including the young woman's name—is essentially a courtroom drama in which lawyers and witnesses argue over what really happened to her.
Also, director Scott Derrickson is an open and articulate Christian who has worked mostly as a screenwriter, and who clearly wants to get people talking about the supernatural. In addition, he and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman develop their characters in such a way that the film may cause Christians to rethink their own approach to such matters. So while the film does present arguments for both sides of the case, you are still conscious of how it steers the conversation here and there, and you cannot help but notice the rather calculated ways in which the characters speak and thereby reveal things about themselves.
For example, when the district attorney's office charges Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) with criminal negligence, it makes sense that they would openly talk about letting a Christian handle the prosecution; they are public figures thinking primarily about appearances, and they don't want people to think they are prosecuting a priest for his faith, per se. But we never get close to Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), the Methodist who gets the job. We are told that he sings in his church choir and teaches Sunday school, and, the first time we see him, he turns down an offered drink and asks for water instead. So we get the sense that he is a strict legalist, or someone who follows the outward form of religion, at least.
What's more, Ethan argues in court that Father Moore's beliefs are superstitious, which may reflect how Ethan has put his faith aside for the sake of his job, or—more likely—may reflect a common Protestant attitude toward certain kinds of Catholic beliefs. (To be fair, though, Father Moore does come across like a naïve and uncritical sort.) Either way, if Ethan has any uniquely Christian response—public or personal—to the case of Emily Rose's possession, we never see it; and he comes across less like a person, and more like a symbol of a certain kind of Christian that the filmmakers presumably don't care for.
Then there is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), Father Moore's lawyer for the defense. She drinks a fair bit and keeps a book by Carl Sagan on her bedside table, so we know she's not a believer. We hear that she is a rising star in the law firm for which she works, and that she recently defended a killer who was not found guilty and is now, she says glibly, sunbathing on a Miami beach; so we know that she's a bit cynical and eager to advance her career. But through her contact with Father Moore—and through her legally unorthodox attempt to defend him by arguing that Emily Rose really was possessed—we also know that she just might become a believer, or, at least, might become less secure in her lack of belief.
The story of Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) herself is relegated to flashbacks, and Derrickson seems to want to be fair to believers and unbelievers alike; every time Father Moore or some other witness describes the strange phenomena Emily saw, the voices that came from her mouth, or the contortions her body went into, another witness offers a scientific or naturalistic explanation, and it is left to the viewer to decide which of these explanations makes the most sense. But the film has been sold as a horror movie, and so, as though the filmmakers realized the courtroom scenes were outweighing the scary flashbacks, Erin begins to be haunted by strange phenomena too, and not very convincingly.
One of the film's hokier elements is the way spooky things—watches stopping, doors flying open, machines turning on spontaneously—often happen at exactly 3:00 a.m. (kind of like how things kept happening at 2:30 a.m. in White Noise, or at 3:15 a.m. in The Amityville Horror—both of which, by the way, are scarier films). Perhaps demons really have adapted to modern clocks and become so punctual, but scenes like these always bring to mind that scene in End of Days where Arnold Schwarzenegger asks which time zone a prophecy refers to. A subplot involving a frightened psychiatrist (Duncan Fraser) who witnessed the exorcism also falls back on genre-bound clichés. Christians may also want to discuss the arguments made in court by an academic expert on possession (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who says that clinical drugs can actually hinder attempts to cast demons out of people.
But there is much to admire in this film, too. While Derrickson uses handheld cameras and a few special effects to convey Emily's possessed state, he also frames relatively quieter shots in interesting and provocative ways: Father Moore looking through a window as Emily plays the piano; the phrase "In God We Trust" posted on the wall above the judge's seat; the wide, open, barren landscape glimpsed through the living-room window between Erin and Emily's mother when the lawyer pays a visit to the farm. Carpenter brings a special, frenzied physicality to her possession scenes. And the film's challenge to the viewer—to doubt his or her own doubts about the supernatural—is commendable.
That said, I wonder if we Christians have leaned a little too strongly on the idea that proving the existence of the Devil would therefore prove the existence of God. Thirty years ago, films like The Exorcist spoke against the nihilistic modernism of their own times by brazenly asserting the existence of a spiritual world, and that's definitely a start. But I wonder if, in our post-modern world, we may need to hear something different. The cross-cultural testimony given by the Aghdashloo character—and the fact that Linney starred in another based-on-a-true-story movie about alleged supernatural events, The Mothman Prophecies—leads me to consider that many cultures have believed in demons without believing in the Almighty God of Judeo-Christian belief. It may not be too hard to get people to believe about the supernatural realm. Getting them to believe in God is something else.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Do you believe Christians can be possessed? If not, then how do you account for Emily's alleged possession? Is it just psychological? Does it mean she is not a Christian? What about the explicitly Catholic visions she says she has?
- Do you believe possessions can be influenced by the drugs people take, as Dr. Adani says? What do claims like hers say about the relationship between soul and body?
- Do you think the film is balanced or neutral? Or does it favor one side over the other? (Consider the opening shot of blood dripping from barbed wire, which reflects the "skeptical" view of Emily's condition; also consider the way Erin seems to be haunted by the same forces that haunted Emily.) If you did not know that the film was co-written and directed by an evangelical Christian, would you have been able to tell just from watching the film?
- Is there a place for skepticism in Christian faith? How do you respond to Ethan's charge that Father Moore believes in superstition? What is the difference between superstition and faith? Should Christians ever accuse each other of superstition? If so, when, and why?
- Do you believe in coincidences? What does the scene with Erin finding the locket add to the story? Is this film about Emily, or is it about Erin? Or is it about someone else?
- Do you believe that the existence of the Devil proves the existence of God?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is rated PG-13 for thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing images. The possession scenes include images of deformed human faces, dilated pupils, epileptic seizures, bleeding hands, and similar phenomena. There are also a few four-letter words.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/25/05
Is Disney trying to encourage young moviegoers to dream about joining the military? Their latest CGI feature, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, celebrates the derring-do of a pigeon (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who aspires to join the Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS) during World War II. Other talents lending their voices include John Cleese, Tim Curry, Ricky Gervais, and Hugh Laurie.
Tom Neven (Plugged In) is more severely disappointed. "I watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose in a theater three-quarters full of children, and I heard nary a laugh throughout. … [It's] a puzzling movie. It depends on a grasp of history likely to be missing in its target audience. That wouldn't be a fatal error if this was otherwise a compelling story with compelling characters, but unfortunately it falls flat on both accounts. … C.S. Lewis said, 'A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story.' This not-so-finely feathered fare doesn't even reach that standard."
"Compared with recent animated films like Shrek and Finding Nemo, the writing and characters in The Exorcism of Emily Rose are a little thin in the plumage," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). But that doesn't stop him from recommending it. "Despite its flaws, The Exorcism of Emily Rose imparts a positive self-esteem message that 'it's not the size of your wingspan, but the size of your spirit.' With it getting harder to find family entertainment that doesn't sneak in age-inappropriate content, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one movie that won't ruffle many parents' feathers."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says it's "fun for children to get a glimpse—albeit a toned down, animated one—at what World War II must have felt like, with realness, humor, and romance sprinkled in amongst the very real losses and dangers of an important period of history. … The morality tale is good for children, too. … The movie has a good showdown between good and evil, cleverly woven through the framework of slapstick, charming dialogue and admirable effects."
Mainstream critics call The Exorcism of Emily Rose "poorly plotted" and "suspense-free."from Film Forum, 09/01/05
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Suitable yet uninspired. That about sums up The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a children's film parents may find themselves wishing that they liked much more than they actually do."