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The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Movies | The intense but restrained film is directed by professed Christian and horror-movie veteran Scott Derrickson

Issue: "Katrina: Unnatural disaster," Sept. 10, 2005

In Christian circles, films are often defended as good "conversation starters." Such movies may not espouse a Christian worldview, but their content either identifies something true about the world or raises key issues that naturally lead to further discussion.

Rarely has this been as accurate a description of a film as it is with The Exorcism of Emily Rose (rated PG-13 for thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing images), a surprisingly serious attempt at blending horror with extended theological debate. The intense but restrained film is directed by professed Christian and horror-movie veteran Scott Derrickson with the theological rigor of an insider and enough cinematic skill to suggest the possibility of mainstream appeal.

Will non-Catholics find this film's depiction of exorcism troubling? Absolutely. But will Protestants and nonbelievers alike leave the theater challenged and primed for discussion? Without a doubt.

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Emily Rose proclaims itself to be "based on a true story." Although none of the press information identifies the source material, the film appears to be an adaptation of the story of Anneliese Michel, a troubled German 20-year-old who died after a series of church-sanctioned exorcisms in the mid-'70s.

For Mr. Derrickson's film, Anneliese becomes Emily (Jennifer Carpenter), an American teenager raised on a farm by a devout Catholic family. She lives a normal life until leaving her family for the first time and heading to college. There, she begins to experience an increasingly strange series of symptoms-both physical and mental-that result in the prescription of anti-epileptic and anti-psychotic drugs.

When the film opens, Emily is already dead. The priest who had Emily under his care, Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), is charged with negligent homicide, his advice to discontinue her medication identified as the primary factor in her death. Father Moore's trial frames the film, as testimony and flashbacks gradually reveal Emily's story.

Mr. Derrickson's portrayal of Emily's apparent possession turns on a critical cinematic decision. Father Moore's trial becomes a debate of science vs. faith-of medical vs. spiritual cures for Emily's condition. So Mr. Derrickson studiously avoids most of the graphic sensationalism that has become a hallmark of this genre.

Emily's symptoms, aside from a few possibly hallucinatory episodes, involve strange body contortions, erratic behavior, odd speech patterns. This naturalistic approach is well-suited to the debate at hand, and Mr. Derrickson rightly understands that as soon as audiences see spinning heads or people crawling on the ceiling, they distance themselves from any rational connection to the action. The film is all the more effective (and frightening) for its restraint.

Mr. Derrickson makes another shrewd move in choosing the players in the trial. Representing the state is prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a Methodist and self-professed "man of faith." Defending Father Moore is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an agnostic interested primarily in defending the public reputation of the archdiocese paying her legal fees. Linney's defense attorney becomes the emotional center of the story, her skepticism gradually shaken as the trial unfolds.

For all its cleverness, Mr. Derrickson's script (co-written with frequent collaborator Paul Harris Boardman) stumbles occasionally, particularly in two related weaknesses. One is the lack of development of prosecutor Ethan Thomas, potentially one of the most interesting characters in the film. While having a Christian present the case for science certainly adds complexity to the story, Mr. Derrickson neglects to dig into the way Thomas' faith intersects with this work. And this is where Mr. Derrickson will also alienate many of his non-Catholic viewers-there's no credible "third option" presented in the film. Father Moore's trial presents a limited choice between hard science and a medieval Catholic version of the spiritual world and our interaction with it.

Despite its restraint, Emily Rose occasionally gives in to a few genre scares-at times uncomfortably undercutting the seriousness of its ultimate purpose. The film's intensity and theological implications may offend some Christians; conversely, many nonbelievers may be bored by its lack of sensationalism and the lengthy courtroom scenes. But Mr. Derrickson should be pleased with this: Most of his audiences are bound to leave the theater talking.

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