Laura Linney as Erin Bruner
Tom Wilkinson as Father Richard Moore
Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose
Campbell Scott as Ethan Thomas
Mary Beth Hurt as Judge Brewster
Colm Feore as Karl Gunderson
Joshua Close as Jason
JR Bourne as Ray
Marilyn Norry as Maria Rose
Andrew Wheeler as Samuel Rose
Shohreh Aghdashloo as Dr. Adani
Henry Czerny as Dr. Briggs
Duncan Fraser as Dr. Cartwright
Though full of original ideas and chilling moments of horror, Emily Rose tends to be far too schizophrenic for its own good, because the transition between courtroom drama and horror thriller isn’t too smooth.
The Catholic Church hires defense attorney Erin Bruner (Linney) to defend Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), a Catholic priest accused of murdering a college co-ed named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) while trying to exorcise her of demons. Bruner’s toughest court battle ever has her facing a prosecutor (Campbell Scott) set on disproving any possibility that Emily Rose was possessed.
True horror fans may be seen as masochists, since they’ll often sit through the worst crap if it’s even somewhat scary, but few of them will disagree that The Exorcist is still the scariest horror film ever made even thirty years later. When director Scott Derickson and his writing partner Paul Harris Boardman decided to create a supernatural thriller with religious overtones, they only partially used that classic as a template, instead trying to cover both sides of the argument whether demons and exorcism are a possibility by placing their horror story in a setting where controversial decisions are made on a daily basis the courtroom.
Based on an actual court trial, the mix of courtroom drama and horror film makes The Exorcism of Emily Rose a breath of fresh air even in this day and age where every post-M. Night horror film claims to be an “intelligent thriller.” Sadly, this experimental mix of genres tends to falter because no matter how well these disparate elements work on their own, it’s very hard to blend them together effectively.
Even before we get into court, we meet Tom Wilkinson’s Father Moore, called upon by the Rose family to try to help their 19-year-old daughter Emily, who has returned to their rural home from college having gone through a great ordeal. One might safely assume that being away from home and in a larger city might have caused an extreme case of anxiety or homesickness, but we’ll learn more about the effects of Emily’s “affliction” soon enough as the story breaks that Moore has been accused of killing the teenager. Along comes hotshot defense attorney Erin Bruner to defend him after winning a case that no one thought was possible. Even as she basks in her newfound glory, Erin discovers that this new case will offer even greater challenges to her own personal beliefs.
Where Exorcism quickly rises above other recent horror films is the brilliant casting of Laura Linney, who effortlessly carries the film as Bruner, not only in the courtroom against her court rival, played with suitable aplomb by Campbell “Roger Dodger” Scott, but also when facing the supernatural aspects, usually involving strange occurrences happening around her at 3 in the morning, which we learn later is the true witching hour.
As hard as the movie tries to become Erin’s story, it’s Jennifer Carpenter’s unforgettable performance as Emily Rose that keeps you riveted to your seat. Carpenter’s impressive repertoire includes everything from piercing screams to speaking in tongues to contorting her body into positions that seem physically impossible. The flashback scenes would not have been nearly as terrifying if not for her. Sure, we’ve seen some of it before and other moments are almost laughable–the “cat attack” jumps out as the latter–but the far-too-short exorcism is so terrifying that you won’t be laughing for long.
In general, it’s the transitions between past to present and the overwhelming desire to be even-handed by offering all possibilities that ultimately makes this a disappointing affair. I could have easily watched an entire film of Jennifer Carpenter as a possessed Emily, but just as you’re getting into the scares, it cuts back to the courtroom, usually to offer some logical explanation for the horrors we’ve just witnessed. It’s a comedown, for sure.
It doesn’t help that the production values of the courtroom scenes aren’t much better than a television movie. Despite being based on an actual case, the way the trial’s verdict plays out seems completely unrealistic and the lack of expression among the extras playing jurors takes away from stronger dramatic moments like the playing of an audio tape of the exorcism that would leave most jaws agape. Because of the amount of dialogue and information revealed during the trial, this may be the kind of movie that needs to be seen more than once to fully absorb it all, but who knows if the other aspects would be nearly as effective on repeat viewing?
For the most part, the scenes in the courtroom and the flashbacks chronicling the court testimony are the best. Other present-day scenes offer lesser opportunities for plot development and drama as Bruner meets with Father Moore, a rather dry and relatively tame performance from Wilkinson, and other prospective witnesses. These moments tend to slow things down even more, and about halfway through, you start wishing that more witnesses and (especially) jurors are picked off one-by-one ala The Omen. That never happens.
The Bottom Line:
Exorcism doesn’t completely achieve what it sets out to do, but there are enough interesting ideas and chilling moments that horror fans and those who enjoy courtroom dramas should be able to find some common ground in this entertaining and thought-provoking experiment.