Director Scott Derrickson said that he wanted “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” to feel like a horror episode of “Law & Order.” For better and for worse, that is precisely what he has made. The courtroom scenes have the same kind of outrageous statement-objection-snarky judge retort that the NBC juggernaut has honed into an art form, and the flashbacks that show the events at hand are far, far creepier than anything Jack McCoy or Lennie Briscoe (R.I.P.) has ever encountered. In the end, however, the courtroom drama, however competent, pales in comparison to the spook show, and the movie loses its impact as a result.
Laura Linney stars as Erin Bruner, a temporarily sidetracked rising star of an attorney who takes on the case of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), a priest accused of negligent homicide after one of his parishioners, a college student named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Liv Tyler), begins to exhibit behavior indicative of demonic possession. The doctors who first examine her believe that Emily shows signs of both epilepsy and psychosis, a dangerous combination if ever there was one. However, the medication they prescribe to her isn’t taking, and the symptoms continue to get worse. Father Moore refuses to take a sweetheart deal offered by the prosecution, because he wants the world to know what happened to Emily. Erin’s firm, however, would rather muzzle the priest, knowing that prosecuting attorney Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), God boy that he is, nonetheless has the ability to make them all look like superstitious fools.
The alleged possession sequences are interesting to watch, because as they unfold, it’s unclear if she is truly possessed or just tragically epileptic, which plays to the strengths of the courtroom scenes perfectly. Emily begs college friend Jason (Joshua Close) to stay with her one night, and the state she’s in when he wakes up is unsettling, to say the least. Likewise, the eventual exorcism sequence has its share of scary moments, with Emily speaking multiple languages and spewing both historical and Biblical references that no 18-year-old would know. However, the movie tries so hard to be even handed about the subject matter that they undercut any tension that they’ve created almost as soon as it happens. The reason for this is no doubt due to the real-life verdicts against the defendants (which included Emily’s parents), but if the purpose of the trial was to entertain the possibility of demonic possession, the movie would have been well served to do the same. The abundance of cliché dialogue – predominantly the conversations between the lawyers – doesn’t help matters.
Linney is her usual reliable self (her performance as Jim Carrey’s bad-actress wife in “The Truman Show” remains one of the most misunderstood in recent memory), and Wilkinson handles the wronged holy man well, though he isn’t given much to work with. Carpenter either has it really easy or really hard, depending on your point of view. She doesn’t have much to do besides writhe, scream, and curl up like a contortionist. At the same time, those kinds of scenes can be very easy to screw up if you get too histrionic. Shohreh Aghdashloo is only onscreen for two minutes as an “expert’ witness, making this a much easier paycheck than “24” or “House of Sand and Fog.” If anyone is truly surprising here, it’s Campbell Scott’s prosecuting attorney character. His father George C. is surely smiling down on his son embracing the role rather than the career opportunity the role will provide. Director Derrickson, however, could stand to learn a few new tricks. As competent as the majority of the movie may be, it is also absent of personality.
Horror fans are likely to be disappointed with “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” since the movie isn’t the horror movie the trailers make it out to be. At the same time, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything quite like it, unless you generously stretch the boundaries to include something like “Devil’s Advocate,” you know, without all the Al Pacino Hoo-Wah. It’s a noble experiment, but a little too even tempered to be either an effective horror movie or legal thriller.(3 / 5)