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Provocative and absorbing but without any pronouncement, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a thinking person’s demon possession film. This hybrid of horror and courtroom drama approaches its compelling subject matter with metaphysical horror within a courtroom procedure format. It presents both the scientific and religious sides of the controversial exorcism case of a 19-year old German girl battling a terribly neurotic or psychotic disorder or a dreadful possession of six demons. It discusses the intersection of faith and science and makes both a person’s mundane and spiritual foundations shake.
This relatively gore-free film is an intelligent inquiry about the limitations of belief and faith in defense to a more scientific interpretation of things. Though the marketing of the film obviously tried to ride on with the prominence of Linda Blaire’s “Exorcist” films, it is not exactly a rip-off. Its flashback style gives justification to the courtroom set, which paves way to a more solid ground of putting arguments in their own places. This validates the aim to make the audience think and really use their heads in coming up with their own judgments concerning faith and spirituality vs. objective truth and secularism.
This psychological thriller presents both the scientific and supernatural insights in the case of Emily Rose, which is based on the true-story of the life of Anneliese Michel. Overall, it is more psychological than the horror an audience expects for an exorcism movie. Unlike the usual demonic-possession movies wallowing in the gore of green vomit, 360 degrees head turn, and levitations, this film stays in the natural world with its own kind of realistic sense of gore and trauma. But still, the subtle but striking supernatural and horror elements presented here tend to give goosebumps of another level.
The story evolves around a negligent homicide case involving Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) who has performed an exorcism to the late Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). Ironically, the church chooses hotshot criminal attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an agnostic and ambitious lawyer, to take on as the defense attorney. On the other side of the courtroom is the prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a devout Protestant.
Jennifer Carpenter’s incredible performance is the film’s major asset. Seeing Emily possessed as she shouts latin words in demonic voices, scratches walls with her nails, twitches robotically and falls to the ground so realistically, is absolutely terrifying. From her physical features to her acting chops, she turns out perfect for the role. Her twitching and snappy moves when possessed or when having unusual epileptic attacks, the way the doctor and the prosecutor see it, require great physical skills and are considerably stunts of great proportion — and they all turn out so creepy.
The subtle parallelism of Emily’s experiences to the physical manifestations of the dark forces on defense lawyer Linney as Bruner makes an effective ground on inquisitive prodding of objectivity, insanity, and spirituality. It adds cinematic dimension to the film without going too much. Her ending speech is commendable. Its content could have been a melodramatic monologue without Linney’s acting prowess. Wilkinson gives a dignified performance as the embattled priest. He plays the character well as he exudes his faith in God in battling the dark, powerful forces surrounding Emily Rose even until the court trial. However, Scott’s interpretation of his role as the prosecutor makes him more like an antagonist. He could have performed the role more objectively and not in a too antagonistic way. Emily’s family and close friend Jason effectively stays on the background, yielding to the story’s focus on the trial and the real reason for Emily’s death. The internal struggle of each character shakes the viewers’ own physical and supernatural struggles as human beings.
“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is not for those who want gore “Linda Blaire-style.” The type of scare it brings doesn’t rely on horror stingers and music and physical gore. Its utilization of silence speaks much more. The devil’s presence is simply a shadowy figure in a robe. The scare factor includes simple movements of door, flickering lights, breaking glass, and animals going crazy over fear of the devilish presence. The most scenes that rely on some visual effects just include the slight morphing of images and human faces.
Playing around basic lighting and camerawork, the juxtaposition of shots of Emily during the build-up of the possession and exorcism scenes where the demons manifest themselves in Emily’s physical body and mention their names turn out very engaging both cinematically and spiritually — minimalist, yet striking.
As a cinematic presentation, it could have added some dramatic license to the storytelling, but the good thing about the film is that it presents the two opposing sides quite well. It makes the audience think about the possibility of a demon possession but leaves room for one’s own judgment, whether it’s really a spiritual or a physical battle. And yet, it doesn’t end there. This motion picture imparts an engaging issue about life and spirituality for the audience to think about.