Apparently, exorcism horror movies lose a good deal of footing unless they’re “based on a true story”—and authentication is hard to come by. Wildly extrapolated from the case of a German teenager in the 1970s, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is grave business, attempting to address Kantian issues of reason and doubt in a courtroom dynamic, and unsurprisingly scoring with cheap shots on the side of the holy-rollin’ faithful. Possession thrillers are natural billboards for Mel Gibson–style Catholicism, but the new film, which prosecutes a priest (Tom Wilkinson) for his “negligent” role in a college girl’s gone-wild self-abuse and eventual death, has a distinctly Bush-era, end-times vibe.
Fools will take it semi-seriously, but more importantly, first-time director Scott Derrickson knows how to cut ghoul-faced shock shots, and the film’s wintry palette is effective. The screenplay, in which contemporary characters use phrases like “forces of darkness!” is another type of spoor altogether. (M. Night Shyamalan could’ve squeezed it out after a chili dinner.) Laura Linney, playing the worldly heroine-lawyer slowly awakening to the almighty powers of heaven and hell, is deadly earnest; the go-to girl for filmmakers requiring a book-smart but ultimately clueless attorney in a skirt, Linney seems here as resolutely on the edge of self-parody as she was in Congo. Ultimately a rationale for suffering martyrdom not unlike the Linney vehicle The Life of David Gale, Derrickson’s flick can sour your stomach with piety, which is a shame—its moments of jolt wattage rate with many J-horrors. If you can manage a dozen or more piss breaks during the ecumenical wrangling, you’ll come out ahead.