Tuesday, March 21, 2006

3AM Infernal

Exorcism movies really aren’t my bag. I first saw The Exorcist when I was about 13 or 14, it seemed silly more than anything else and my opinion hasn’t changed much over time. This likely has to do with the fact I was raised a Catholic, but since around the age of 13 my beliefs have fallen somewhere between agnostic and atheist. For me, the entire premise of a soul possessed by demons holds about as much potential fear factor as Freddy vs. Jason (which is, of course, the bar against which all horror films should be measured).

Enter The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This should be a flick that I've no interest in, and yet the producers nip squarely at my filmic Achilles heel: they cast Laura Linney as the main character.

All Laura Linney has to do is show up in a movie and I’m there. Linney could be cast as the nosy white neighbor in a trash revamp of What’s Happening!! and I’d go see it. To her credit, this is highly unlikely to happen; her track record has been pretty spotless and un-whorelike over the past, um, well…her entire career. She’s easily the best high-profile actress working today[1], and a big part of her success is she makes it look so damn easy. This is also why she may never win an Oscar – the Academy doesn’t seem to honor actors who appear to make the job seem effortless. (Someday soon I will do an entire blog entry on her alone.)

As if the casting of Linney wasn’t enough, Tom Wilkinson is also onboard, and he’s another actor who can do no wrong. Two aces in the hole – even if the script sucked, the film’s got a pair of lead actors who’ll sell it like it’s another account of the Kennedy assassination.

But Emily Rose does not suck. It’s a surprisingly fresh take on a genre that's been done to death, and it engages the viewer from the word go. Did I find it frightening? Having seen it twice now, the first go ‘round admittedly had its share of creep-out moments (due mostly to actress Jennifer Carpenter...I'll get to her later); the second viewing, not so much. I just sat back and enjoyed the piece.

The film’s co-writer/director, Scott Derrickson, sells it as the first courtroom-exorcism drama. This is probably true – after all, can you name another? As such, it sets itself apart from other demonic fare, and will probably always have a unique place in the genre. Despite the film's success, I doubt there'll be a glut of these films in the future [2]. ("Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: The pale man you see before you may stalk the living at night, may sleep in a coffin during the day, and may refuse garlic on his pizza - but I shall prove to you that he is NOT a vampire!")

Quick thumbnail sketch: Defense attorney Erin Bruner (Linney) is assigned the negligent homicide case of Father Moore (Wilkinson), a priest who performed a botched exorcism on a young girl, Emily Rose (Carpenter), which seemingly resulted in her eventual death.

What sells this film for me is that the Bruner character is an admitted agnostic. This is a stroke of brilliance on the part of the filmmakers, because whether or not you believe in heaven, hell, God, demons, etc. – the concept of exorcism is about as neutral as you can find in that area. Many religious people have stories about why they believe; few involve possessed souls. On the subject of exorcism, aren’t we all agnostics in our own way?

Making the central character agnostic right out of the gate puts us on equal footing for the entire story. We aren’t sure what to believe as the story begins, despite overwhelming evidence (shown primarily in flashback, which is the sticking point; the possession scenes are shown in terms of reminiscence and conjecture, not as fact), and we’re still not sure as it draws to a close.

A noteworthy strength of the film is that the prosecution makes a far more believable case, even though we're never shown anything through the prosecution’s “eyes”. Had the film played out entirely inside the courtroom, sans the hocus-pocus gimmick, its balance likely would have shifted, and the chances of the viewer ever being on the side of Father Moore would have been dependent entirely on Wilkinson's performance. It also wouldn’t have been nearly as wild a ride.

Largely unknown actress Jennifer Carpenter portrays Emily Rose, without much dialogue, character or, inexplicably, effects work. She’s able to somehow contort her face and body into grotesque looks and positions, and she never once utters phrases like “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell!” Did I mention Emily Rose is rated PG-13? Weird, huh? That either shows the screwiness of the ratings system or how tame the movie, in its own strange way, actually is. There isn’t much - if any - blood and certainly no pea soup to speak of and cursing is almost nowhere to be heard. My second viewing was the "Unrated" DVD cut, which runs some three minutes longer; I noticed no substantial differences from the theatrical viewing last year. The film is adult only in its subject matter and intensity.

My only major problem(s) with The Exorcism of Emily Rose has/have to do with the opening scrawl, “Based on a True Story”. It is “inspired” by actual events, however the names Bruner, Moore and Emily Rose are filmmaker creations. The real Emily Rose case centered on a girl named Anneliese Michel and it occurred in Germany in the 70s. As the film closes, we’re given similar post-scripts detailing the current whereabouts of Bruner and Moore, which also provide the illusion they’re real people.

Outside the film itself, there doesn’t appear to be a cover-up on the part of the filmmakers to hide the truth, however 95% of the people who see the film will likely never do the research to find out the backstory and will take these words as gospel. The film’s one major downfall is portraying the onscreen events and characters in a manner that suggests more truth than fiction, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why that’s the case. The DVD features a director’s commentary that I have yet to hear. Perhaps it sheds some light on these questions?

There is a character that appears about midway through Emily Rose named Dr. Adani. She's called upon by the defense to testify on the nature of the point where spirtuality and science meet. Played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, Adani may be the film's most fascinating creation. She's onscreen for less than five minutes, yet in that time she challenges the viewer on everything they've believed up until that point by invoking shamanism and Castaneda whilst condemning prescription drug use. I'd love to see Derrickson make an entire movie centered around this character alone, as she's the singular voice of reason and thought and the only person who seems to understand the strange goings-on that perplex every other character in the movie.

[1] Well, Laura ~and~ Joan Allen.

[2] Although there does appear to be another movie in the works, entitled Requiem, that intends to exhume the Michel case once again, only this time sticking closer to the facts.