Emily Rose teaches doctors a thing or two

by Glen Baity

The phrase ‘Based on a True Story’ has a nasty tendency to blow up in a film’s face. I know it’s supposed to add more depth and make the stakes slightly higher. But since we live in a world where people are rightly conditioned not to believe anything they hear, my response to ‘based on a true story’ ‘— and I imagine this is the case for a lot of people ‘— is one of immediate skepticism.

I point this out because The Exorcism of Emily Rose wants you to know, before the title of the film even appears onscreen, that it’s ‘based on a true story,’ a premise that doesn’t carry much weight if you don’t believe demonic possessions actually occur. It’s therefore accurate to say, if you share my temperament, that the film gets off on the wrong foot immediately, but I’ll explore the ‘why’ of that momentarily. First, the facts of the case: the film follows the trial of Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), a priest accused of criminal negligence in the death of 19-year-old Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). He claims that Emily was possessed by demons, and in performing her exorcism he was acting with the blessing of the Catholic Church and Emily herself. The prosecution alleges that Emily was an epileptic with psychotic tendencies, and that it was Moore’s refusal to commit her to a hospital, coupled with his suggestion that Emily go off her medication, that led to her death.

Told in a series of flashbacks, The Exorcism of Emily Rose might more accurately have been called The Trial of Richard Moore. While the trailer would lead you to believe that the film linearly chronicles the horrifying possession of a young woman, there’s less of that than you might think. It’s actually closer to A Few Good Men than The Exorcist, which is a problem in itself: a good courtroom drama requires a set of strong personalities to sustain it, and Laura Linney, playing Moore’s defense attorney, is no Jack Nicholson (though Campbell Scott is quite good as District Attorney Ethan Thomas).

I’ll give the film partial credit for one unexpected tip of the hat: the prosecution is actually allowed a competent, contrary voice. Thomas isn’t a villain, and his argument is eloquent, impassioned, and convincing. Of course, I agreed with him to begin with, which almost makes it worse in the end. The film doesn’t lend any credence to scientific explanations, and the bias isn’t subtle: nearly all the flashbacks to Emily’s ‘possession’ are based on the idea that it happened just as the priest describes it. Consequently, the prosecution’s more logical explanation ‘— that Emily was a very, very sick girl ‘— feels like lip service, since it doesn’t get equally flashy reenactments. Those with persistent doubts about this whole ‘possession’ thing, by extension, become literal devil’s advocates.

Apologies if it seems like I’m taking this all a bit too seriously, but after all, Emily Rose is a ‘true story.’ I read another story in the Guardian back in June, this one actually true, about a nun who was ‘exorcised’ in Romania. Her priest and fellow nuns tied her to a cross and left her to starve with a rag in her mouth over the course of three days. After she finally expired and the ersatz ‘exorcists’ were carted off to prison to await murder charges, it was revealed that the victim had in fact been a diagnosed schizophrenic. But hey, tomato, tomahto, right?

Is the film entertaining? In a way. Some of the ‘possession’ scenes are creepy as hell, but in the grand scheme, there aren’t that many of them. The film is, as previously stated, a courtroom drama, but I don’t think it’s a noteworthy one. It’s also sanctimonious and extremely preachy, assured as it is of its own moral superiority.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is unfortunately dragged down by its unshakeable belief in its own veracity. If you’re unconvinced by the priest’s account, or if you’re unsatisfied by Emily’s representation in the film, you’ll be left behind. The whole affair will cause you to wonder, if anything, what really happened, but the movie insists you take its word on faith. If you can make that leap, I imagine you’ll be in for a real scare ‘— no judgment from your pal Glen. But if you’re dubious about whether or not demons randomly possess people or you just flat-out don’t believe it, the implications of the film will likely distract from any enjoyment you might otherwise have experienced.

That said, I much prefer a film that repels me on moral grounds than because it’s poorly made, and Emily Rose certainly isn’t poorly made ‘— to the contrary, several scenes could’ve been classics if they’d been in a better movie, and there’s enough suspense to make you jump at a few shadows afterward. But it seems like many of the details have been sexed up for the sake of drama, and the ending feels strangely like proselytizing (though possession, of all arcane religious tenets, seems like a mighty weird thing to insist someone believe in). Whatever happened to the real Emily Rose? Wherever she is now, I think her memory deserves better.

To comment on this article, e-mail Glen Baity at