"Emily Rose" is too schizophrenic to function

Sept. 13, 2005, midnight | By Jeff Guo | 18 years, 10 months ago

Imagine "Law and Order." Now imagine "Law and Order" with a screaming, hysterical girl with an appetite for spiders. That's the gist of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which features the young, pretty Jennifer Carpenter in a role that consists entirely of flailing like a harpooned walrus.

But Carpenter's enthusiastic twitching is not enough to deliver "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" from mediocrity. Clocking in at a drowsy one hour and fifty-four minutes, the movie suffers from a bad case of avant-garde envy, resulting in an experience that is, at best, painful.

One of the many creepy scenes from "The Exorcism of Emily Rose."

It seems strange that any movie could go so wrong with such a simple premise. Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) is a small-town girl from a devout Catholic family who suddenly and mysteriously becomes possessed by demons. Her parish priest, Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), tries to perform an exorcism, but fails. Emily dies soon afterwards. Moore gets slapped with a manslaughter suit.

This in itself would have made a reasonably entertaining popcorn-flick, but Hollywood could not leave well enough alone. Instead of presenting a straightforward tale, the movie attempts to use Father Moore's trial to tell Emily's story in a series of disjointed testimonies and flashbacks. This narrative device is cute in its post-modernity, but pretentious and pointlessly complicated.

There is a more fundamental problem with turning a horror movie into a courtroom drama. While one genre is character-driven and logical, the other just wants to make you pee in your pants. Combining the two creates something that is dizzyingly bipolar; "Emily Rose" switches from dry courtroom scenes to terror-laced flashbacks at a whiplash-inducing rate.

Despite the awful plot, the movie manages to scrape together an excellent cast. Laura Linney is vivacious and incisive as Erin Bruner, the defense attorney for Father Moore. Bruner is the stereotypical fast-talking, amoral law-shark, but Linney lends her a vulnerable and sincere quality. She makes the courtroom almost bearable.

Wilkinson, to his credit, plays the part of the devout old priest without a trace of sarcasm. This is a surprising feat, considering the ridiculous lines he is handed. "The forces of darkness are out to get you," he whispers to Bruner in one scene, sounding more like a deranged hobo than a man of God, but pulling it off with complete sincerity.

The cinematography is also top-notch. The camera loves to go for extreme close-ups, which magnify the nervous tension. Lighting in the demonic-possession scenes is done with an artistic eye, the deep oranges and blues reminiscent of the underworld.

Any goodwill accumulated by all this talent, however, is quickly nullified by the overreaching earnestness of the script, which tries to portray the trial as a symbolic clash between good and evil. "You're in a spiritual battle, Erin," Father Moore tells Bruner. Her case soon degenerates into a heap of spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

Courtroom discussion is an incoherent mishmash of half-developed ideas that the film throws out in an effort to seem intelligent. The movie has a fetishistic obsession with psychiatric terms. Psychotic, epileptic, psychotic-epileptic; all the jargon gets a thorough airing-out.

The earnestness also reaches over into Emily's scenes, which are out of control. Carpenter's hysterics often cross the line between the frightening and the funny. In one of her spastic episodes, she stuffs her mouth with insects and bounces up and down while clawing at the wall like a monkey. Factor in her guttural barking, and the performance did little to incite fear, only ridicule.

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" has all the makings of great horror movie — superb acting, beautiful photography and a compelling story. It's painful to see it turn into such a mess.

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for strong imagery and disturbing ideas.

Jeff Guo. Jeff has a very short attention span. He hopes this is not because he was dropped on his head as a baby, but then again, there's this odd flat spot near the top of his head... More »

Show comments


No comments.

Please ensure that all comments are mature and responsible; they will go through moderation.