Judge Clark Douglas takes a daily swim in a pool of holy water. It's good exorcise.
What happed to Emily?
Father Brown: Are you a Catholic?
Facts of the Case
To this day, few can determine what happened to Emily Rose (played in this film by Jennifer Carpenter, White Chicks). We know that she was a seemingly ordinary teenage girl living a seemingly ordinary life. Poor Emily began experiencing terrible things as she began her college years. The family felt that demonic possession was involved and enlisted the aid of a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins). Despite the best efforts of the priest, Emily passed away. Now a trial is being held, and a jury must determine whether the priest was preventing the family from treating a serious medical problem or nobly attempting to save her from demonic forces. A skeptical attorney (Laura Linney, The Savages) is now taking on the responsibility of defending the priest and finds her own beliefs tested by the details of the case.
Do not be misled by the advertising campaign for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Before the film entered theatres, theatrical trailers played up The Exorcism of Emily Rose as a modern-day take on The Exorcist. Shocks, scares, and things that go bump in the night were presented in the trailer, along with the requisite screams and creepy sound design. A blurb on this new Blu-ray package quotes critic Phil Boatwright, who declares that this film is, "as scary as The Exorcist." The film description on the back of the case boasts that, "This harrowing film unfolds like a recurring nightmare from which there is no waking." All of this is more or less nonsense, but that's okay. The Exorcism of Emily Rose aspires to be something better than a mere horror movie.
First off, it should be stated that this is primarily a courtroom film. Most of the film takes place in a courtroom, with flashback sequences offering a visual representation of Emily's experiences occurring on a semi-regular basis. To be sure, these sequences are pretty effective. Jennifer Carpenter plays the hell out of them (bad pun intended), nailing several solo sequences in which she must convince us of her possession. Scott Derrickson directs these scenes with successful blend of theatrical flair and gritty realism. This is an unrated cut of the movie (originally rated PG-13), but there are few differences between this and the theatrical version. The scares come courtesy of Carpenter's acting, Derrickson's atmosphere, and Christopher Young's score (is there any modern composer better at this sort of thing?)
However, these are frankly little more than interesting side items. The meat of the film is presented during the courtroom scenes, and that is where The Exorcism of Emily Rose really shines. This is a film of thoughts and ideas; an intelligent examination of a very controversial and divisive subject. Most films about demon possession simply want to exploit the subject for shock value, which is not the case here. Derrickson wants to ponder the validity of such occurrences, and carefully look at the evidence in an intelligent and mature manner. He does this courtesy of arguments between Linney's defense attorney and a prosecutor played by Campbell Scott (The Secret Lives of Dentists). The battle is not fought on a speculative level, but on a scientific one. Scott attempts to prove that Emily's problem was a purely medical one, while Linney attempts to demonstrate that a medical condition could not have caused Emily's trauma.
A lesser director might have attempted to make Scott the villain of this film. After all, he's prosecuting Wilkinson, who is a very nice man whom we are inclined to like. Here, Scott is presented as a tough but honest and intelligent man making a very valid argument. On the other hand, an equally convincing case is made on the spiritual side of things. As the court case takes some hard turns, Linney determines to take an unusual tactic. She decides not to attack the medical angle, but to scientifically prove that demonic possession is a real and credible condition. Meanwhile, Wilkinson provides a nice balance at the center of things. We certainly believe that he believes in demon possession, but his demeanor does not successfully indicate whether he is credible or crazy.
The Blu-ray transfer is a little less remarkable than one might hope. The picture is a bit on the flat side, and there are even a couple of flecks that appear here and there. The sound is considerably more impressive, with the thick sound design and Chris Young's score working together to create an audio world that effectively supports the film without distracting from it. Supplements include a very solid commentary with Derrickson (who touches on a wide variety of issues and never gets boring), three good making-of featurettes, and an interested deleted scene. Not a lot of stuff, but it's all quite good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film's biggest strength is arguably its biggest weakness. The Exorcist was a tremendously successful film because it never doubted the validity of demon possession. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is all about the question of whether or not demon possession is a valid theory. While it does serve as engaging food for thought, those seeking a gripping demonic thriller will probably find themselves disappointed.
Additionally, there is a small subplot in the film that rings just a little bit false. This plot involves demonic influences attempting to stop Linney's character from succeeding in acquitting the priest. I'm not trying to imply that this could or could have happened, just that it plays rather unconvincingly in this particular film.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a noble and worthwhile study that deserves a fair share of praise for aiming higher than cheap scares. If you want a schlocky horror-thriller, you can find an abundance of them coming out these days. If you want a film that examines an often-exploited subject seriously, by all means check out this film.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary w/Scott Derrickson
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