31 Screams in October, #17: The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Posted: October 17, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Director: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Carpenter, Colm Feore, Mary Beth Hurt, Henry Czerny, Shohreh Aghdashloo

Truth is stranger than fiction. Real-life horror is far scarier than the fantastical bogeymen dreamed up in both literature and film. Yet, even within those tall tales there is a kernel of truth tucked away. You only need look carefully at all the evidence, peeling away the metaphors and outright lies like the inedible skin of an orange to get to the information that’s important. How you go about explaining that which cannot be explained has as much to do with the religion you follow (or don’t follow) as anything. One might see an alien vessel in the sky, where others would see a weather balloon or a B-2 Stealth Bomber. You might swear that there’s a ghost in the room with you, whereas those who don’t believe in such things will tell you that what’s moving things around on your desk is only just a mouse, and that cold chill you’re getting is coming from the air conditioner you forgot to turn off. Some, as in the case of Emily Rose, might see a disturbed girl in need of medical and psychiatric care, where others will see a young woman possessed by demonic forces and in dire need of spiritual care.

Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) has been arrested and will be put on trial for the charge of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), a 19-year old college student who believed herself plauged by six distinct demons and had given her consent for Father Moore to perform an (ill-fated) exorcism. The priest’s defense attorney is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an ambitious lawyer whose reasons for taking the case are primarily for career advancement, not the salvation of an innocent man. She doesn’t see this as a winnable case, anyway. Father Moore’s reasons for accepting her are not for himself, but for the sake of telling Emily’s true story to the rest of the world.

Strong arguments are made in favor of each side of the case. Prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) refutes the notion of demonic possession, presenting the court with the idea that Emily was suffering from a combination of epilepsy and psychosis and that the drug Gambutrol, prescribed to her by her doctor, was the answer to what ailed her. Any spiritual remedy would simply be a waste of time that could have been spent bringing her to a hospital. Erin plays the tape Father Moore made which documented the exorcism. On it, Emily is heard producing sounds that would make anyone’s skin crawl, and also speaking in several foreign/ancient languages. Erin pleads with the jury to remember that a conviction can only be justified if reasonable doubt has been eliminated. Being an agnostic whose own beliefs are being strongly tested by this case, she distinguishes between what is fact, and what is improbable yet possible.

A breath of fresh air compared to the usual demonic possession stories, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” does its audience a great service in giving us two perspectives on the same narrative. In almost any other movie of its kind, you would only bear witness to the believers’ point of view, without any room for doubt left in the open. Because all of Emily’s scenes are flashbacks, we can only speculate as to what she was really going through, or what those who were present really saw, as opposed to what they believe they saw, with their own eyes. What’s more, here is a movie that (in more of a courtroom drama than a straight horror flick), tells a competent and reasonable story with characters that seem natural. Even Emily Rose in her most “demonic” state still behaves… more or less like a mentally disturbed person with a broad education might. There’s no pea soup being barfed up, and certainly no head-spinning going on here. Just a man speaking for a girl who can speak no longer.

There are fine performances all around, but really the attraction is Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose. I don’t know whether she drew from personal emotional experiences or whether her performance simply comes as a result of careful research and direction, but Carpenter’s performance is nothing short of chilling. Particularly creepy is knowing that the actress did all of her character’s most physically grueling scenes herself. No CGI or contortionists were required. Best-known for playing foul-mouthed Miami Metro police detective Deborah Morgan in all eight seasons of Showtime’s “Dexter,” Carpenter’s “possessed” Emily Rose remains surprisingly civil-tongued throughout.

So many movies proclaim to be “based on a true story,” when really they’re just saying that to get you to watch. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” actually is based on real events. As you watch the movie, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why aren’t Emily’s parents on trial, too?” In the case of Annelise Michel (on whom Emily’s story is based), who died during an exorcism in 1975 Germany, her parents were in fact brought before a judge the same as her priest. She too was described as being religious and withdrawn by her classmates at school, and her doctor had also put her on anti-seizure medication (Dilantin, which I also take on a daily basis, and Aolept). The outcome of that hearing was more or less as it is presented within the film. Being based on real events separates “Emily Rose” from, say, the “Exorcist” franchise. This one entertains well enough, but it also makes you seriously consider its message, even if you’re not an especially religious person: You don’t have to believe in the supernatural in order to put your faith in your fellow man.

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