From what I can tell, Emily Rose died from a terminal case of bad screenwriting.
A precocious demonic-possession-thriller-cum-courtroom-drama, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a film whose good intentions serve more as stumbling blocks than pavement. The fact that the film is based on a true story more likely than not contributed to the clunky, slipshod, and ridiculously clichéd finished product, as the filmmakers may have been afraid to treat Rose’s story with any degree of levity or sensationalism. But let’s face it, folks: the idea of a demon possession is just about as sensational as you get, and the dour, earnest way in which it is handled by its floundering, more-than-serviceable cast is a sad sight. If you can put acting triathletes Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson on screen and manage to make them look like rank amateurs, maybe your film is what needs the exorcism.
The much-modified “true” story involves a seemingly normal teenaged girl (Jennifer Carpenter) who becomes randomly beset by what appears to be a demonic spirit. After several attempts to address her erratic behavior and increasingly violent episodes with medical attention (she is thought to be either epileptic or psychotic and is medicated as such, to no effect), her concerned parents turn to their parish priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) to lend spiritual assistance. The church grants permission for an exorcism, Emily Rose wastes away to the point of dying before it is completed, and the priest is then accused of criminal negligence. For his trial, Father Moore agrees to be represented by appropriately conscienceless Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), who is then required by her contract (and the script) to have a spiritual awakening that turns her from a tough-as-nails heathen attorney into a Child of God. Meanwhile, the man-of-God prosecutor (Campbell Scott) dutifully plays the role of Staunch Believer whose hypocrisy will be revealed as the trial progresses.
First off, I just have a hard time believing that such a complex and bizarre true story could be so easily squeezed into such a pat, clichéd bundle. But that’s the least of our worries here: the main problem with “Emily” is that the pieces of information needed to understand the story are hoarded and dispensed with all the care of a game of Pogs. The combination of supernatural thriller and courtroom drama is an unholy union to begin with, but it becomes downright ludicrous when the rules of neither genre are followed. I’m no legal expert, but the trial itself seems like a complete fiasco: vital pieces of information are withheld for no apparent reason other than to provide surprises or a sense of awe at the end of the film. A major witness is killed the day he is supposed to testify, and no one seems to think this is the least bit odd, or even care. And several HUGE pieces of evidence are withheld just so they can be used to wrap things up at the last minute – had they been addressed earlier, the movie could have been over about 45 minutes sooner or allowed for a little less conversation and a little more action.
Which is a shame, because the flashbacks to the actual possession, while at times incredibly cheesy, are actually the most interesting parts of the film. Sure, we’re not given any background on Emily whatsoever (even a scene or two more with her before we see her freaking out would have been immensely helpful in establishing her as anything more than a potential kook), but the scenes of her early traumas at the hands of her mystery affliction are at least audacious enough to drive home just how scary it would be to suddenly see the very fabric of reality rending before your eyes. Carpenter handles this awestruck terror frighteningly well – her reactions to being pinned to her bed by invisible spirits and seeing the eyes of her classmates melt for no reason are heartbreakingly genuine. Unfortunately, some of the more extreme manifestations of her apparently demon-addled condition are hindered by some pretty embarrassing special effects – particularly a scene where Emily’s boyfriend wakes to find her tangled into a frozen, staring human pretzel on the floor next to the bed. In the wide shot, Emily is obviously a dummy, shiny limbs and all – and what could have been a truly eerie moment becomes laughable instead. Ditto for a scene where Emily gobbles a huge spider in her bedroom – I actually thought that it was supposed to be a rubber spider, but apparently not: chalk up another moment to unintended hilarity. The much-discussed “CGI makeup” effects are by comparison completely inoffensive.
The other characters, even as they are given a lot more to do other than jump at shadows, are similarly one-sided and disposable. Wilkinsons’ dutiful priest is so saintly that you never question whether he had this girl’s best interests in mind, which clashes with the otherwise intriguing choice to present many of the flashbacks twice: one from a medical perspective (Emily having an epileptic seizure) and the other with a spiritual bent (Emily running from demons). A seed of doubt as to Father Moore’s intentions may have made the downright devoutness of the rest of the plot more palatable; as it is, the do-gooders are so good and the baddies so crooked that the whole thing has the moral complexity of a Lifetime movie. Also, having a character repeat “But they need to hear Emily’s story!” over and over throughout the movie without having anyone actually ask him what that story might be is like casting a giant pink elephant as the court stenographer. The contrivances are just a bit too obvious and distracting.
Likewise, the occasional artistic flourishes don’t feel fully realized, as the procedure-heavy courtroom drama robs the film of any chance to really flex its muscles in terms of tone or imagery. The initial image of blood dripping from a barbed wire fence (you come to understand it later on) is actually a beautiful, concise way to encapsulate the issue at hand here. But it fades from your mind too quickly once the Matlock aspect kicks in. I’ve wondered before if “genre-benders” may be the future of the increasingly maxed-out horror genre – stories that play against our expectations for other kinds of films (romantic comedies, as in “Audition”; coming-of-age films, as in “Ginger Snaps”), but this combination just didn’t do it for me.
Linney, of course, turns in an interesting performance – but it’s really in spite of the script that she was handed. A few of the “did I just hear a noise in my dark apartment?” scenes would have been embarrassing to watch had they featured a WB teen in her panties, much less an Oscar-nominated actress. Watching her wade through such graceless, simple dialogue and dumbed-down psychobabble can be downright painful at moments. Remember how bad you felt for her (as an actress, not as a character) in “The Mothman Prophecies”? I think Linney is just too good an actress for the material at hand here, as has been the case whenever she has ventured into genre fare. Please don’t make me bring up “Congo” to demonstrate.
In all, the scary bits are interesting but not scary, the courtroom drama bits are stagey and a bit ludicrous, and the major plot points (the random, gratuitous death, Emily’s revelation, Erin’s being stalked by some unseen force) are sort of dropped onscreen with little concern for whether they’re landing rightside-up or in the right order. And the whole “resolution” or point to the story, while admirable in that it raises some metaphysical questions not generally addressed in either horror movies or legal thrillers, is really kinda hokey. Had the big “story” that Emily had to tell been something really earth-shaking, the rest of the plodding, predictable drama might have been worth it. While I applaud the effort to make an adult horror film that isn’t afraid to ask questions and leave them unanswered, I would have preferred if the questions had been phrased properly. In the end it’s about as fundamentally challenging as something you’d see on the PAX channel, and not much more fun to sit through.