Combine the gripping drama of “Law & Order” with the satanic frights of “The Exorcist” and you’ve got … a movie that would be much better than “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” which borrows too heavily from one genre and not enough from another. It is, essentially, a flat courtroom movie that has been spiced up with a few scenes of demonic possession. I admit that this is a good way of enlivening a dreary legal proceeding; the problem here is that it hasn’t been done extensively enough.
Set in an unspecified year in an unspecified city, the film (allegedly based on a true story) begins with the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), a college freshman who was either possessed by the devil or simply a psychotic-epileptic, depending on whom you ask. Her priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), is charged with reckless endangerment in her death, which occurred after he performed an unsuccessful exorcism.
The state puts Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) on the case because he’s one of their best assistant district attorneys — oh, and because he’s also a church-going Christian, so he won’t seem rabidly anti-Catholic. The church hires agnostic Scully type Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) to defend Father Moore. She doesn’t believe in demons and devils, but I bet she starts believing when creepy things start happening in her house every night at 3 a.m.!
Oops, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The film is set almost entirely in the courtroom. The scenes of Emily possessed (or whatever she was) are shown via flashback: Someone testifies on the stand, and we see the events they’re describing. It’s like “Cold Case,” but without the era-appropriate pop songs.
The prosecution’s case is that Emily was simply epileptic and psychotic, and that Father Moore was irresponsible in persuading her to stop taking her medication. The defense says there’s no way of proving definitely that she was or wasn’t possessed, nor that she was or wasn’t epileptic-psychotic, for that matter. In a rather fascinating turn, Erin Bruner brings in an expert (Shohreh Aghdashloo) to testify on the science of demonic possession, lending some respectability to the otherwise crazy-sounding notion of a girl gettin’ the devil in her.
Aside from that, it’s your basic courtroom stuff, with a lot of objecting and striking from the record and approaching the bench and whatnot. Bruner even uses my favorite technique, where you say something awful and unfair and then, when the opposition objects, simply say, “Withdrawn,” and it’s like it never happened. (“Your mother’s a whore.” “I object!” “Withdrawn.”) If only that worked in life.
But wait, you say. You’ve seen the trailer for this movie and it looks super-scary! And it is. The trailer, I mean. The movie isn’t. You know how some comedies put all the funny parts in the trailer? Well, if you’ve seen the ads for this film, you’ve seen all the creepy parts. I’m sorry to have to tell you that. Believe me, I’m as disappointed as you are.
They’re fine as far as they go: intense scenes of the girl Linda Blairing it up while thunder crashes and hand-held cameras bounce around. Father Moore shouts his Latin; Emily responds in a foreign language and a Freddy Krueger voice (though without the vulgarisms that made “The Exorcist” such a hoot); bystanders genuflect and utter the names of deity in a way that is technically praying but sounds like swearing.
Director Scott Derrickson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Harris Boardman) clearly digs this kind of thing. He previously made a direct-to-video “Hellraiser” sequel and wrote “Urban Legends: Final Cut.” You wonder, then, why he’d make this movie, which so painfully neglects its exorcism story in favor of a drab legal one.
What a cast he got, too! Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson class up the joint quite a bit, working like pros to make their hacky dialogue sound reasonable. I’m a little embarrassed for Campbell Scott, though. Here he is, a great actor who doesn’t get noticed enough, and he’s blustering and overdoing his way through the first major role in a wide release that he’s had in many years. Please ignore him here and go rent “Roger Dodger” or “The Secret Lives of Dentists” instead. I compel you, and the power of Campbell Scott compels you.
C (1 hr., 54 min.; )