A doctor is called to a remote farmhouse in Minnesota to confirm the death of the eldest daughter of a deeply religious Catholic family. What he finds shocks him and leads quickly to the arrest of the family’s priest on charges of manslaughter – by exorcism. Representatives of the diocese secure the perfect defence lawyer, a woman proving herself more than a match in a male dominated career and an atheist to boot, desiring only one thing of her: that the priest not be allowed to embarrass the church further with his outdated beliefs; and success in the case will secure her career for good.
The District Attorney prosecuting the case is also considered the perfect choice: passionate and well informed, being quietly devout in his own Methodism. But as the defendant and his lawyer come to know each other and the case begins the boundaries between what can be proved and what is to be believed start to blur, and the consequences of both their actions grow ever more menacing. Ultimately, not just a man’s freedom but the validity of his beliefs will come to rest on those of a jury of his peers – did he try to save a lost soul, or torture to death a woman in need?
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on a true story detailed in a book called The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. The parallels are close, though the names and places have been changed… amongst other things. The action boils down to two opposing aspects: in the foreground, the tension of the court case; in the background, Emily’s oppressive descent into tragedy. The bulk takes place in the aftermath, with Laura Linney and Campbell Scott solid as the impassioned, battling lawyers and Tom Wilkinson in typically sound form as the persecuted priest, though perhaps not as striking as his supporting role in Michael Clayton. The courtroom drama and the stories playing out behind it are effective if not particularly surprising, although there is an unusual aspect to the resolution which, if not totally satisfying, is at least original – and it is here I now know that fiction and fact diverge most fully.
In the background title role, Jennifer Carpenter (maybe “best” known as the blinkered sister of TV’s serial killer anti-hero Dexter) is appropriately sweet and harrowing, depending – and she achieves some real creepy moments made all the more potent for their lack-of-effects authenticity. This does however raise a negative point by contrast, because in the flashbacks of Emily’s escalating downfall we are also treated to more conventional teen-horror fare of the computer generated variety. Not too often, nor too excessive in the details; but in visualising for us what goes on in Emily’s perception, whether by possession or delusion, something of the reality of this world is compromised. Certainly the horror is most effective without it.
This quibble aside though, things aren’t bad. There is emotion, excitement, some humour, some scares – better, some unsettlings – and all its strings are neatly tied up come the end. Perhaps its greatest failing is that it falls between so many genres – legal drama, spiritual drama, teen horror, proper horror – that neither you nor it quite know what it is meant to be overall. Maybe not so the writer and director team, whose next project sounds oddly similar to this one (the director went on to remake The Day that Keanu Stood Still – best less said). Anyway, over all The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a decent piece of work.