Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Part courtroom drama, part horror flick, and part biopic (inspired by the true story of Anneliese Michel), "the Exorcism of Emily Rose" is one of the few demonic-possession themed films that's actually worth watching.

Ever since Linda Blair freaked the living daylights out of audiences in the 1973 film "The Exorcist," films based on demonic possession have been a staple of the horror genre. Most of these films are content to rely on cheap thrills and special effects (contorted mannequins, "pea soup" projectile vomit, creative sound editing, etc.) It is a rare film that invests itself in the ideas behind the stories and takes the underlying doctrine seriously. "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is such a film.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences and disturbing images. This film is not for kids.

The story was inspired by the life of Anneliese Michel, a German Catholic woman who was believed to be demonically possessed. Her first experiences with this began in 1969, when she was 17. She continued to exhibit troubling behavior until 1975, when a close family friend noticed her behavior while on a pilgrimage to an unofficial holy site. In particular, this friend noticed that Anneliese was unable to walk past an icon of Jesus Christ or drink holy water, and began to suspect demonic involvement. She notified the local priests, who examined her and concluded (after consulting with their bishop) that it was demonic possession. The exorcism continued for nearly 70 sessions over ten months. In the end, Anneliese died of malnutrition, and the priests (along with her parents) were tried and convicted of negligent homicide.

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" advertised itself as being "based on a true story," and it has the audacity to take its own claim to heart. Many of the details are changed (the possession was of shorter duration, only one priest conducted the exorcism) but the skeleton of the plot remains. Emily Rose is a devout Catholic who begins to suffer seizures and hallucinations. She is diagnosed with epileptic psychosis and psychotropic drugs are prescribed, to no avail. The priest is ultimately convinced she is possessed, and Emily is persuaded to stop taking the drugs and rely on the rite of exorcism exclusively. A single exorcism is attempted, but is not repeated. Emily dies, the priest is arrested.

The film itself is less of a horror film and more of a courtroom drama. The events above are related through flashbacks, while the primary narrative is the trial that followed. This is an effective narrative device, not only for underpinning the surreal trauma of the possession but also for unpacking the ideas and arguments in the debate. This debate is also well served by making the skeptical prosecutor a member of the Methodist Church, while the defense attorney who defends the priest is agnostic.

The acting is generally top-notch. Jennifer Carpenter's performance as Emily Rose is quite impressive, relying more on physical performance than special effects. Tom Wilkinson breathes the simplicity and sincerity of the priest, while Laura Linney offers a more involved performance as the defense attorney.

There are weak spots. Though Carpenter's performance is stellar, the film does rely on a number of cheap thrills (with cheap CGI) as fall-backs. The obligatory rousing speech by Laura Linney can boast of decent delivery, but the content is legitimately disappointing. At heart, it is an argument for faith on the basis of post-modern epistemic doubt -- it may work in a courtroom setting, but in the realm of ideas it is quite a downer.

On the whole, however, I greatly enjoyed the film. It takes seriously its source material, and particularly the doctrines that are on display. The film does not resort to simple answers, and at times mocks (or at least wryly points out) the ad hoc nature of the medical diagnosis offered by the prosecution. The Catholic priest is treated with respect (rather than open ridicule), and the film deliberately leaves itself open to the possibility of the supernatural. Finally, the verdict delivered by the jury is quite admirable as well, in balancing the demands of justice and mercy.

There are better courtroom dramas than "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," and there may be better exorcism-themed horror films. But rarely does a film so effectively mix such disparate genres, and give a platform to a honest argument on an idea's merits. This is the rare film that entertains while making you think, and for that I was thoroughly impressed.

To purchase this film, check out
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Special Edition)

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