Having watched The Blair Witch Project, I went looking for another groundbreaking horror film from the same time period to compare it with. That led me to Scott Derrickson's Exorcism of Emily Rose. This was yet another of those films I remember being talked about when I was in college (Derrickson was an alum after all) but, in spite of rooming with film majors, I never got around to seeing. I had my doubts: "a court room drama mashed up with an exorcism movie -really?". It sounded like some cheesy, low budget, well-meaning, Christian film. That -or it was going to be a Hollywood gore-fest that was going to have me traumatized for weeks. When I heard a few years ago that Derrickson had been tapped to direct the Marvel Universe property Doctor Strange, I suddenly began to see things in a different light. I figured I'd go back and give The Exorcism of Emily Rose a chance. I'm glad I did.
I took five pages of notes on the movie during my first viewing (I think the most I've done so far is three). Perhaps the movie is just simple enough that I can get my amateur head around it. I also made sure to watch the associated featurettes, though I have not watched the movies with the director's commentary, and I think that helped. So where do I begin?
The movie is almost Aristotelian in its purity. It follows a single action in three major locations with a small cast and asks the audience to experience catharsis by sitting as jury over the event. It is really and truly like watching a Greek Tragedy unfold. Each character is clearly delineated and being who they are, the incidents of film lead them down inevitable paths to the conclusion. At no time, and I think this is very important for the success of the movie, did I feel that the writers/director were manipulating a character to make a point. There are no surprise conversions. The changes the characters, particularly Bruner, go through are subtle and entirely intelligible given their starting points and what they have experienced.
Given that the movie has very little variety to distract the audience, the writers/director and the studio wisely chose a cast that was up to the challenge of credibly portraying the exorcism and attendant trial. Jennifer Carpenter is extremely convincing as a physical actress in portraying possession; a fact that allows special effects to be minimal and heightens the sense of realism. Laura Linney sells the agnostic defense council from beginning to end while allowing for subtle changes that take us on a journey with the character. Tom Wilkinson gives us in Father Moore a very realistic clergyman who is neither a fanatic nor an otherworldly hero. I feel like I might have met him in Connecticut or New York working a soup kitchen or wrangling about Catholic politics on a park bench. Campbell Scott as the prosecutor is every devout Christian who has worked too hard to earn others' respect to have some fundamentalist nut-job make all Christians look like rubes.
Characters aside, this is a beautifully designed film. As in The Sixth Sense, color is used to signal changes in theme and reality. The sets have a timeless and time-worn feel to them that is visually interesting. The sets are also sparse so that there is very little in the of visual clutter to distract the audience. Derrickson rightly compares the film to a crucifix: a beautiful work of art and a horrific image at the same time.
Finally, I appreciated that the film does not present any answers, rather it provokes questions. Many films claim to do this as a cop-out. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is not one of them. Not all the questions are of a religious nature either; there's quite the running dialog on the role of consent in treatment that I greatly appreciated having friends and relatives who have suffered brutally from medical malpractice.
Those are my thoughts after finishing a first viewing. There's so much to think about here. If anything comes to me in the next few days, I'll be sure to post it here at Platypus of Truth.