In the late 1960s, a young German woman named Anneliese Michel began exhibiting bizarre behavior. Unable to control her mind and body, Michel's condition soon led to diagnoses of epilepsy and depression. When treatments failed, the Michel family turned to their Catholic Church, believing Anneliese was possessed by demons.
Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which opens Friday. (Sony)
After several unsuccessful exorcism rituals, Michel died. Those involved were put on trial for manslaughter.
In "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which opens nationwide today, Michel's story is updated and moved to America. Only the broad strokes of the real story remain, and that's OK. "Emily Rose" is an intelligent film that fairly treats a complex and controversial subject.
"Emily Rose," as written by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, is part courtroom drama and part horror/suspense. The bulk of the film involves Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), the lawyer who defends the priest (Tom Wilkinson) accused of negligent homicide while trying to exorcise Emily's demons.
Erin initially takes the case simply to advance in her firm. Her professional ambitions soften, however, as some of life's larger questions intrude on her existence.
Thrown into the mix of Erin's skepticism and Father Moore's faith is prosecuting attorney Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott). Thomas tells the jury, "I'm a man of faith, and I'm also a man of facts." Thomas is a devout Methodist himself, but he's not buying the defense. He vigorously advances the charge against Father Moore.
"Emily Rose" is structured around the courtroom defense of Father Moore, with flashbacks to Emily's spiraling descent into hell on Earth and her allegedly demonic fits. If the film has a shortcoming, it's the fact that audiences never get to spend time with Emily as a person apart from these fits.
In only one scene do we see Emily being herself. The rest of the time, she is convulsing, screaming, crying, contorting and otherwise being freakishly inhuman (tasks that Jennifer Carpenter, as Emily, performs quite well).
Linney is terrific as always, and she plays Erin with ample infusion of doubt—doubt about her own preconceived ideas, doubt about others' explanations, doubt in general.
When she meets Father Moore, he asks her about her own spiritual state. She says she's probably an agnostic.
"If you're not sure," he says, "you are."
She soon can't do as her firm, hired by the archdiocese, requested, which is to make the case quietly go away and keep Father Moore off the stand.
"What I care about is telling Emily Rose's story," says the Father, even at risk to his own well-being and reputation.
The courtroom is a cockpit, with reason and faith vying for control of it. Prosecutor Thomas argues Emily had a medical condition needing treatment. He parades doctors in front of the jury, throwing "psychotic epileptic disorder," "catatonic rigidity" and other medical issues out for consideration.
Erin counters by putting on the stand a renowned anthropologist (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who states, "Possession is one term for a basic human experience." It affects people across cultures, she argues.
Erin simply wants to raise possession as a possibility, suggesting to the jury, "Maybe we've taught ourselves not to see it."
Mirroring the courtroom drama and the flashbacks to Emily are Erin's own uncomfortable experiences.
"There are forces surrounding this trial. Dark, powerful forces," Father Moore tells Erin. "Just be careful. Watch your step."
She begins waking at 3:00 in the morning, also known as the "witching hour." Lights go out, doors open. Is her mind getting the better of her, or is Father Moore right, that she's in "a spiritual battle"?
But what happened to Emily? And perhaps more importantly, what are the possibilities?
There's not much horror at the movie's beginning, but the flashbacks get disturbing—mainly because the special effects aren't overdone. They're just odd enough to make you uncomfortable. And the filmmakers do give audiences the pay-off, with the exorcism scene coming near film's end.
"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is a good film. The fact that it discusses faith and reason intelligently and seriously makes it all the more welcome.
It takes a page from 1992's "A Few Good Men" and 1997's "Contact"—two mainstream films concerned with presenting different sides of important issues. Those movies handled serious topics about as well as any popular Hollywood product is going to, and "Emily Rose" has done the same.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing images. Reviewer's Note: Scenes of Emily's "possession" are indeed disturbing.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman
Cast: Emily Rose: Jennifer Carpenter; Erin Bruner: Laura Linney; Father Moore: Tom Wilkinson; Ethan Thomas: Campbell Scott; Karl Gunderson: Colm Feore; Judge Brewster: Mary Beth Hurt; Dr. Adani: Shohreh Aghdashloo.
The movie's official Web site is here.