Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Exorcism of Emily Rose:You'll Respect it in the Morning, But...

When a horror director strives to craft a chiller that's a bit classier and more thought-provoking than your typical fright flick (as Scott Derrickson does with The Exorcism of Emily Rose), you can't help but root for him. And when he stumbles on an interesting genre weld that hasn't really been explored to its fullest extent before, you want to like the end result...No, you want to LOVE it.

So it stings a little that The Exorcism of Emily Rose doesn't quite cut the mustard; this despite a top-drawer cast, a carefully-crafted visual sense, and an admirable willingness to objectively explore its interesting moral Gordian Knot.

Tom Wilkinson plays Father Richard Moore, a Catholic priest accused of negligent homicide when college student Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) dies under his care. Moore, it seems, is convinced that Emily was possessed by the Devil, and his attempt to exorcise the demonic forces from her may have contributed to her death. His powerful diocese enlists genius attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) to defend him, and the prosecution's headed up--ironically enough--by Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a devoutly-religious Methodist who nonetheless harbors considerable skepticism for the supposedly well-intentioned priest.

Based on a true story, Emily Rose wins major novelty points for being the first cross between courtroom drama and horror flick that I can think of. The cast's uniformly good: Linney effectively captures the spiritual conflict that seeps into this savvy and cynical defense lawyer, and Wilkinson is, I think, genetically incapable of giving anything less than an excellent performance. Scott nets the top acting honors for making the ostensible heavy of the movie into a decent, moral, utterly genuine guy. Derrickson and his fellow screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman also go to great lengths to paint a scrupulously objective vantage point throughout.

And maybe that's one of the problems. The movie concerns itself so doggedly with giving both sides of the case full credibility and equal screen time that it never commits fully to a specific viewpoint. Just when it starts to get under-the-skin scary, you're boxed back into almost docu-drama pragmatism, then jerked back again. It's one of those rare modern movies that would've actually benefitted from more running time: an increased fleshing-out of the characters--and more details regarding Emily's descent into madness/possible demonic possession--might've made the relentless objectivity less frustrating. It's respectful and respectable, but it never engages (or, more importantly for my horror-hungry ass, scares) like it should.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose tries really hard to be something more substantial than your average horror flick. In the end, though, it feels less like a living, breathing, artful feature film and more like a slightly spooky episode of Law and Order.

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