Some genuine shocks punctuate “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” an unusually intelligent genre item that manages to mix full-bore horror with courtroom drama. Anchored by a compelling performance from Laura Linney as an agnostic lawyer who takes on the defense of a Catholic priest accused of negligent homicide during an exorcism, pic may prove too talky and CGI-light to scare up devilish returns in today’s mass market. But given the right chance, it could score with upscale genre fans of both sexes, especially overseas.
All clipped sentences and soignee power-dressing, Linney plays Erin Bruner, junior partner at a law firm run by Karl Gunderson (Colm Feore). Ambitious Erin is a rising star after getting a high-profile murderer off the hook; when Karl asks her take on the case of Father Richard Moore (Brit actor Tom Wilkinson), she accepts with the proviso that she’ll make senior partner if she wins.
Meanwhile, to protect itself from possible accusations of antireligious bias, the district attorney’s office has decided to field assistant D.A. Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a buttoned-up, devout churchgoer.
Based on a true story, nicely lean screenplay by Paul Harris Boardman and helmer Scott Derrickson packs everything the audience needs to know into the opening reel or so, including the first of many flashbacks to the titular victim, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). Erin refuses any plea bargaining, as the padre wishes to tell the full story of Emily and her exorcism in court.
At the 15-minute mark, the trial begins, and, in the film’s most original structural gambit, for the following 100 minutes pic intercuts courtroom proceedings with flashbacks to Emily’s story as it’s revealed by witness testimony. Pic thus works on two concurrent levels: The debate between science and faith (and its effect, especially, on nonbeliever Erin) is played out in the trial sequences and brief noncourtroom interludes, while the flashbacks supply the horror in increasingly ramped-up style.
Story emerges of an average 19-year-old from the sticks who wins a college scholarship and soon finds herself “possessed” by some dark force that bends her out of shape at 3 in the morning (the traditional witching hour of evil). The scientists put Emily’s condition down to “psychotic-epileptic disorder” and prescribe a calming drug.
After fleeing one night to a church, Emily comes under the sway of Father Richard, who believes — and convinces Emily — that the problem is spiritual, not physical. With her family’s consent, Father Richard finally performs an official Catholic exorcism that pushes her weakened body too far.
As the trial continues, Erin herself starts falling prey to nighttime scares. As her agnosticism starts to crumble, she constructs a defense argument that hinges on spiritual possession being accepted as a valid phenomenon in Western society.
Derrickson (“Hellraiser V: Inferno,” “Ghosting”) handles the courtroom scenes in a straightforward manner that would make Perry Mason feel at home, with the usual minor dramas over, for example, finding an expert witness in time.
It’s all generic stuff, though the dialogue is well handled by the cast and the arguments are laid out in an accessible way. (Sometimes too accessibly, with Erin repeatedly saying, “By that, you mean…”) It’s the juxtaposition of that part of the screenplay with the horror material that gives pic its special tension and flavor.
Most notably, Derrickson & Co. don’t resort to the expected CGI bonanza: Virtually all the horror comes from plain, old-fashioned special effects, lighting, color design and performances, especially by Carpenter, who’s utterly believable in her moments of ugly possession. Deafening score by Christopher Young would become tiresome if used all the way through the picture but complements the all-out horror flashbacks.
Screenplay’s avoidance of unnecessary character backgrounding, touchy-feely downtime with family and friends and explanations for every event gives pic a tight, trim feel, even at two hours. In those respects, the film has more in common with Asian horror movies than with regular U.S. genre fare. Exorcism scene, when it finally arrives, is genuinely powerful.
Apart from one wobbly scene in which Erin confesses to Father Richard that her lack of faith is starting to weaken, Linney carries the picture, making the most of an essentially routine role, especially in her fine concluding speech.
Scott makes Ethan a tough, humorless opponent, and Wilkinson , despite a fluctuating Yank accent, plays the priest to the hilt, with him and Linney pairing well. Smaller roles are professionally filled, with even an actress of Mary Beth Hurt’s caliber cast in the hardly demanding role of the court judge.
Tech package, especially Tom Stern’s widescreen lensing, is smooth in all departments. Film was shot in Vancouver.