Freed Spirits

Jennifer Carpenter plays the possessed in an understated drama that tells of a fatal exorcism attempt by a priest in 1976 and his subsequent trial.
Jennifer Carpenter plays the possessed in an understated drama that tells of a fatal exorcism attempt by a priest in 1976 and his subsequent trial. (By Diyah Pera -- Screen Gems)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is full of ghostly presences who flit across the screen trailing gossamer filaments of lost possibility, dashed hopes and broken dreams. It's a haunted project, then, full of ache and loss and regret.

I'm not talking about the movie, or the real Anneliese Michel, the young German woman upon whose death the movie is based. I'm talking about the cast, which is far more interesting than the movie. What a collection of superb performers who, for one reason or another, never quite made it, at least to the heights their talent would seem to warrant. The star is the incandescent Laura Linney, who just a few years ago seemed poised on a major career after the breakthrough of "You Can Count on Me." Now she's in an exorcism movie.

The co-star is Campbell Scott. The son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, he's another who almost got there -- he was the big news in "Dying Young" with Julia Roberts way back in '91, then segued into directing (he co-directed the great "Big Night" with Stanley Tucci). But I have never heard of his last 16 movies. And now he's in an exorcism movie.

Then there's Mary Beth Hurt, so poignant and promising in "Chilly Scenes in Winter" and a few other films in the late '80s. Since then, almost nothing . . . . until the exorcism movie.

Finally, Henry Czerny, a Canadian actor, was brilliant in "The Boys of St. Vincent"; he came to Hollywood and dominated several films, chiefly "Clear and Present Danger," where his vitality and intellect far outshone nominal star Harrison Ford's dullness. He was going to go all the way. He didn't. He's in an exorcism movie. Worse, he's a cameo in an exorcism movie! ("And Henry Czerny as . . . the Psychiatrist.")

Needless to say, with a cast like this, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is a superior performance vehicle and on that count alone is never less than riveting. Each of the performers mentioned, as well as the slightly less failed Englishman Tom Wilkinson, is superb in the understated drama that tells of a fatal exorcism attempt by a rural priest and his subsequent trial for negligence contributing to the death of a minor.

Based on actual events in 1976 in Germany, the movie transfers the drama to some flat farm state, possibly Ohio, and transpires almost entirely within a county courthouse, flashing back to key moments and decisions. All in all, it's a completely professional production, vivid and realistic, full of neat observations and blessedly disciplined in the nature of its special effects, which remain suggestive rather than literal and, far from going over the top, stay just a little above the bottom.

Linney, ever intelligent, ever human, plays Erin Bruner, an agnostic, ambitious lawyer assigned by her firm -- the big client is "the diocese" -- to defend the priest. Bruner has no interest in the supernatural or in religion at all; she simply sees this as one more step on the way to partnership. But gradually she warms to the old man and comes to believe in his belief, even if she herself never quite reaches the threshold of belief. It's an amazing job of walking an intellectual line, so much harder than playing a true believer.

Wilkinson plays the priest, and it's another quiet, disciplined performance. He's a wonderful actor, and he makes us feel Father Moore's decency and love of the poor young woman (played in flashback by Jennifer Carpenter), 20 years old but consumed by seizures, anorexia and self-mutilation. But we also feel Father Moore's truculence: He believes that the girl has to be in charge of her own situation and that she must decide what is right.

The issue is itself fascinating. It's faith vs. science. The university doctor diagnosed Emily as having grand mal seizures symptomatic of a form of rare psychotic epilepsy, but the drug he prescribed had no immediate effect and Emily got sicker and sicker, or crazier and crazier. The priest, called in by her religious parents, saw a girl of an unusually delicate religious nature who so believed in her own possession that he reluctantly attempted the harrowing exorcism. (In reality, in Germany the exorcism took several months -- the movie collapses it to a matter of weeks.) At a certain point, however, Emily's body simply gave out and she died. The state argued that if she had continued under medical care, she wouldn't have died, and thus the priest was indicted.

The director, Scott Derrickson, seems not to want to suggest to the world that he ever saw "The Exorcist." That is a very good decision, as is the decision (he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Paul Harris Boardman) to root the story in the everyday and not impose some sort of gothic sensibility on it, or gin up any hokey glamour such as making the victim's mother a movie star, as did William Peter Blatty in his best-selling novel. Instead, Emily Rose's mother is a doughty farm woman, prosaic and shattered; her father is a farmer, taciturn but shattered; and the family farm, though severe in the harsh Ohio winter, doesn't ever take on a phony cinematic "haunted house" look. But talk about chilly scenes in winter: the snow falling relentlessly on the plains, the cold farmhouse standing alone, the parents rigid with fear, the priest trying to keep the tortured girl from smashing her head through windows or eating spiders; it's scary enough without computer-animated goblins, thank you very much.

I love the way the sleek settings of Midwestern small-city civic architecture play off and amplify the film's sense of suspense and mystery. Somehow the generic, almost featureless buildings with their glowy faux-marble surfaces seem to make the winter air colder, the spiritual despair of the priest deeper, the fury of the prosecutor (Scott) more intense, the clever sophistry of Linney more glib. There's no green vomit and nobody's head ever rotates a full 360; we stay in the natural world and never enter a movie world, and that makes the movie a lot better.

And these actors! So great! Really, it's such a shame they're not at the pinnacle of the profession and that the people who are at the pinnacle of their professions aren't making the exorcism movies! We'd all be a lot better off.

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

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