That's a damned (no pun intended) shame, because The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a surprisingly effective courtroom drama with quite a scope of horrific elements spicing up the gumbo, like a possessed Tony Chachere! And... let's face it, anything could be called "based on a true story". Hell, I'm sure that at some point in history a good guy went bad, his wife had a kid, and twenty years later he became a good guy again! That doesn't make Star Wars a true story, does it?
Still, while Emily Rose isn't quite the "great" film that we all might be wanting... it's not the poorly made, and derivative, flop that I personally was expecting. For one thing, this film much more closely resembles courtroom films like Primal Fear or A Civil Action rather than Rosemary's Baby or Lost Souls. For another, the style of this film leaves quite a lot of ambiguity in the true torment of the title character. Is she the plaything of the vomiting denizens of hell, from Malebolgia to Doug Henning, or is she merely the victim of an epilepsy-spawned psychosis, which, coupled with her deep spiritual beliefs, seems to mimic "textbook" possession, like the band Kingdom Clone mimicked Led Zep!
The Exorcism of Emily Rose lays out for us a solved mystery within the first five minutes. We know she died horribly and we know what parties were involved in her demise, while attempting to save her. What we don't know is the back story. How will each witness recount the tale of what befell poor Emily? Our backdrop is the trial of the Rose family's parish priest Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who is on trial for the negligent homicide of his charge. Campbell Scott's Christian prosecutor Ethan Thomas faces off against Laura Linney's agnostic Erin Bruner, who is determined to save Father Moore from the wrath of the people, and from himself.
From this point we're given an almost mundane, and therefore realistic search for the truth, as found in the varying (and mostly conflicting) accounts of Emily's downfall. One of the more compelling aspects to this film is that the arguments of both sides appear to hold water, and most of the audience is still never sure what to believe is the truth, and which side is full of more corn than a hamster's gut.
Emily's story is told to us in flashback, using witness accounts, medical reports, expert opinions, and the written words of Emily herself. Director Scott Derrickson (who co-wrote the script with Paul Harris Boardman) uses these opportunities to go back and film these accounts using increasingly frightening methods and tricks. When the story gets scary, it actually does get scary, not the more simplistic silence-before-BOOOO techniques that startle, but never frighten.
However, Derrickson gives almost equal time to the non-horrific explanations that come from half of the witnesses, and, in many cases, the same scene is shown two ways, once with horror effects, and once with much more real-world explanations. Naturally this serves to show off some of the acting talents of Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Emily Rose here. Quite often her acting is the same in either version, as her fear is no less palpable, regardless of her true "demons". It's what Emily believes that stirs the fear here. By that respect, it doesn't really matter what the truth is for her, we feel for this poor kid, no matter what she's really going through! Good job there!
Where The Exorcism of Emily Rose goes wrong, however, is surrounding some of the shifts in tone, that neither feel skilled, nor atmospheric in many cases. While Derrickson does have some talent at handling the really scary things here, other times he resorts to mere startling shocks. Similarly, the film attempts to break up many of the mundane aspects of most "Courtroom Thrillers" by implying heavily that Linney's character herself is being haunted, much like poor Emily had been in her own life. Yes, either by studio pressure, or design, the film also seems to borrow an image or two from The Exorcist to fill in these gaps (though there is a refreshing lack of a head-spin).
It's this lack of balance that almost, but not quite, destroys the ambiguity that helps make this film a good one. There is never any question about which attorney the audience is supposed to identify with, and what the filmmakers really intend here. True, if this weren't skewed toward the supernatural then it wouldn't be "the first ever courtroom horror film", but the strong suggestions toward this theme seem to take away from one of the best things about this film, its neutrality. That is unless both Derrickson and Boardman are actually attempting to strongly suggest that both Erin Christine Bruner and Father Moore are also victims of epileptic psychopathy. And here I didn't even realize that was communicable!
No chicken bones about it, though, this is a good film... perhaps not great, like the original The Exorcist, but in spite of what the commercials want to tell you, they aren't really trying to be that anyway. And, yeah, it does succeed in being better than most, if not all, of the rest of the Exorcist flicks out there. It does it with a good story, a very proficient cast and a smart, if occasionally flawed, direction that lets the audience make up their own minds. That's not even to mention cameos by Mary Beth Hurt, Kenneth Welsh, Shohreh Aghdashloo and, of course, Colm Feore, proving that he'll be in anything! But then again, Campbell Scott once said he was through with Hollywood Movies... I guess now that he looks less like the cool Seattle Hipster of Singles and more like the 1980's version of Mike from The Brady Bunch, the times, they are a-chan-gin'!
The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is it Original? Pretty much. Is it scary? Much of the time, it is! Is it well done? It's above average, yep, yep, and hell, in a scene or two it's almost beautiful and inspiring! Is it consistent? I'm not sure, and to echo Father Moore, if you're not sure, then you're inconsistent. If you want some brains served up with your frights, and not in a George Romero kind of way, give this one a shot. Balancing the unbalanced, The Exorcism of Emily Rose receives Three and One Half Stars out of Five, which is pretty darned good. But then, I'm a sucker for les films Katholique. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get myself checked out... You know that illness that causes one to believe they have contracted the very diseases they've been learning about? Well, I'm getting screened for epileptic psychosis, yes, yes. Strangely, I'm really hoping that's what it is... the alternative gives me the heeby jeebies. Hully Gee! See you in the next spinning reel, Father!
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