Monday 4 November 2019

Movie Review: The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005)

A courtroom drama and supernatural horror movie, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose combines two genres with decent results.

Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is arrested and accused of causing the death through neglect of a young woman named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), who died from malnutrition and self inflicted wounds after she entrusted Moore with her care and stopped taking medication. Moore refuses a plea bargain and insists the case go to court. His archdiocese retain Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) as his defence lawyer. Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) is the hard nosed prosecutor, with Judge Brewster (Mary Beth Hurt) presiding.

Through witness testimony Emily's story is revealed in flashback. Originally from a devout rural family, she was in her college dorm when she felt attacked and invaded by a malevolent spirit. Diagnosed with epilepsy, episodes of severe body contortions and hallucinations persisted despite medical intervention. In desperation her family turned to Moore, who believed Emily was possessed. As the trial proceeds, Erin starts to experience disturbing late night incidents.

Based on the true story of German woman Anneliese Michel, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose is a reasonably effective exploration of a collision between science and religion, with generous doses of outright horror. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson efficiently merges two familiar genres that rarely share the same space.

Half the film is a fairly robust courtroom debate, with the expected cut and thrust between prosecution and defence under the watchful gaze of a patient judge. The other half features plenty of straightforward horror, Emily's descent into a hell of either possession or disease played for maximum shock, plus the bonus of Erin confronting spooky after-midnight scares of her own once she takes the case.

Because the movie opens with Emily already dead and Moore on trial for neglect, the scenes documenting her trauma carry a relatively contained threat level. Derrickson therefore uses extreme physical angularity to amplify shock value, with actress Jennifer Carpenter pulling off some creative contortionist moves. The tension is marginally elevated when Erin and Moore start to experience things going bump in the night in her apartment and his prison cell respectively, the present-day scares occurring concurrently with the trial and carrying the menace of an undefined outcome.

Back in the courtroom, the mechanics of the trial are often suspect with plenty of hurried evidence and new witnesses introduced haphazardly. But Derrickson manages to provide a balanced view of the charges. Prosecutor Thomas presents a forthright case of a desperately sick girl taken off her medication and allowed to suffer due to ill-informed and unscientific religious intervention. Erin counters by introducing doubt as to whether the diagnosis of epilepsy was ever accurate to begin with, and brings in an expert on global incidents of possession to back-up Moore's beliefs.

Emily's exorcism is notionally both the beginning and the end of the film, a harrowing fight between good and evil erupting over an innocent young woman's body. She was either saved or destroyed by religion, the definitive conclusion a matter of imperfect evidence and degrees of belief.

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