THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is overwhelmed with such an overweening sense of earnestness that one feels almost sinful for not being swept along with what its makers obviously consider a tale of great importance. The greater sin, though, is in taking a tale of exorcism, faith, and the law and not making it more compelling. It’s not like there’s not a whole lot of fodder to work with here.
It begins with the fallout of the exorcism in question, which for mystical reasons took place on Halloween, and it’s not good. The medical examiner called in to certify Emily’s death finds a gruesome scene that he can’t label as anything less than suspicious. Everyone involved looks aggrieved by this, parents, examiner, and especially Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the priest whose efforts turned out so badly. His diocese, having already approved the exorcism, wants as little further negative publicity as possible, and hires Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), a rising star in the legal profession eager to make partner at her firm to convince the priest to take the deal and keep his mouth shut. He refuses, of course, and so as Bruner delves into what happened and the trial commences, Emily’s ordeal is examined from several perspectives. As things progress, Bruner, a firm agnostic in matter of faith, is given more than a few reasons to question her views on the matter.
The most effective moments come with Emily’s first brush with possession. Strange noises in the night and invisible hands weighing her down while contorting her body into impossible positions are the standard stuff of such doings. It’s when the point of view shifts and the audience sees the world through Emily’s eyes. The faces of ordinary people melt into those of demons as the people in question continue to stroll in the rain or pray in a church. The subtlety of that juxtaposition paired with Jennifer Carpenter’s evocation of Emily’s rising hysteria at what is happening to her is suitably eerie. As for the rest of it, Linney and the rest of the cast deliver impeccable, committed performances with a script that doesn’t pan out for them. Beyond Emily’s descent into whatever it is that happened to her, be it the psychotic epilepsy favored by the prosecution, or a genuine form of possession that the defense uses in its attempt to sway the jurors, the proceedings are singularly dry, even dull, and when the eponymous exorcism involves stampeding horses, that’s saying a great deal. Director Scott Derrickson uses jerky camera angles to build tension that instead induce motion sickness. Dialogue, such as that from Emily’s boyfriend includes such gems as confiding to Bruner that his entire time with her was a nightmare, but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Even the courtroom scenes which might, under better circumstances, have pondered the lip-service religion gets in the secular world, fall flat while also falling short. Because an agnostic for the defense and a deeply religious prosecutor (Campbell Scott) who teaches Sunday school and sings in the church choir is not just good legal strategy, it’s also whiz-bang cinema, such is the case. Yet never once when said prosecutor sneers his contempt for a supernatural explanation of what happened on Halloween does Bruner point out that the deity him/herself is a prime example of something greater than the natural world and, hence, supernatural. How obvious is that to hoist him by his own petard? The best the film can come up with is an anthropologist (the always sublime Shoreh Agdashloo) specializing in possession among primitive cultures.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE does little beyond and teaching its audience the darker implications of 3 in the morning. Carpenter shrieks and snarls, Wilkinson frets piously, and Linney knits her brows, but all in such a reverent way that the necessary emotional fireworks never ignite. It fails to break any new ground visually, and wastes the talents of some of the finest actors working today.