Despite the cast's impeccable pedigree (Laura Linney! Campbell Scott! Tom Wilkinson!), and despite this reviewer's avowed predisposition both for movies about Satanic possession and for courtroom dramas (two genres this film manages to straddle at the same time), the loosely fact-based legal thriller "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is satisfying neither as a murder mystery nor as a vomit-soaked frightfest.
Taking its inspiration from the case of a putatively possessed German student whose mysterious death while under the care of a Roman Catholic exorcist precipitated a criminal charge of negligent homicide, the film, now set in the American heartland, pits a church-going district attorney (Scott, looking a bit demonic himself) against the accused priest's (Wilkinson) defense lawyer (Linney). As Erin Bruner, a bitter nonbeliever who uses alcohol to medicate her pain over her successful defense of guilty clients, Linney gives the largely thankless role her darnedest. Like the audience, she only hears about the allegedly spooky events in hindsight. Unlike us, however, she doesn't have the advantage of watching them in flashback. Not that this helps her (or us) make up our minds. Almost every scene is played both ways: once as if the poor Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) is channeling Beelzebub, and once as if her symptoms are merely the result of epilepsy.
Although the film seems to come down on the side of the argument that believes in demons, it's never especially persuasive -- least of all when it wants most to be, as in the scene in which some kind of devil-cat leaps onto the good Father's chest during a thunderstorm straight out of hell.
Make that straight out of Hollywood. Good, if slightly overwrought, performances are drowned in more Sturm und Drang hokum that the spindly little "Law & Order" wannabe, swimming against a current of horror-film cliches, can withstand.
-- Michael O'Sullivan