A Study in Opposing Worldviews
[Editor's Note: This film contains intense, disturbing phenomena and imagery. It is suitable only for adults.]
Do the voices whispering in someone’s head come from his own subconscious, or from somewhere else? Is some syndrome or condition responsible for a patient’s disturbing behavior or is the syndrome simply the name given by doctors to a particular set of symptoms and behaviors? Does a patient’s aversion to religious objects point to satanic influence, or is it merely obsessive-compulsive behavior with a religious bent?
The Catholic Church’s guidelines regarding possible cases of demonic possession, as with purported miracles and apparitions, insist on a default stance of skepticism. Naturalistic explanations are assumed until there is persuasive evidence to look beyond them (for example, displays of knowledge that seems impossible to account for in human terms, such as secrets known to the exorcist alone, or familiarity with unknown languages).
Perhaps the bottom line regarding whether a medical framework or a spiritual one best accounts for a particular case might be which approach proves more effective in treating the condition. If drugs or therapy allow a patient to function normally, it seems reasonable to view the patient’s condition in naturalistic terms. Likewise, if the patient recovers after an exorcism, skeptics may chalk it up to suggestion, but it seems reasonable to allow for supernatural factors in such a case.
Unfortunately, this is little help with the tragic case of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), who dies after both medical science and religion fail to help her. Perhaps this is because Emily herself chooses to discontinue both taking her medication and undergoing exorcism. Or perhaps, as she believed, neither continued medication nor continued exorcism would have proved effective.
Emily comes to believe that her sufferings may serve some good purpose by showing a skeptical world evidence of unseen realities. I am a believer, but I confess I am left with more doubts than certainties about Emily’s case.
This, perhaps, is what writer-director Scott Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman want to do: raise questions, not supply answers. Inspired by a true story of Anneliese Michel, a Bavarian girl who died in the 1970s after almost a year of exorcism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a study in opposing worldviews. It doesn’t so much affirm the existence of God or the devil as insist on the importance of the question whether God (and the devil) exist.
Unsettling Persuasive Realism
This confrontation of worldviews takes the form of a courtroom drama structured around the trial of Fr. Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who administered the failed exorcism. The drama of the philosophical divide is heightened by the juxtaposition of a reluctant, skeptical defense attorney and a determined, churchgoing prosecutor.
Cognizant of the potential pitfalls of going after a man of the cloth, the DA’s office strategically chooses Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a practicing Protestant, to prosecute Fr. Moore. Pitted against him is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), a rising star with her eye on a law firm partnership, who’s been unwillingly charged with representing Fr. Moore and negotiating a plea bargain that will settle the matter with as little scandal and embarrassment to the diocese as possible.
Of course Fr. Moore refuses the plea bargain. Moreover, he wants to testify not to clear his own name, but because he insists that Emily’s story must be told. Erin quickly realizes that she’s at sea after an opening statement from Ethan that’s so compelling that she can only defer her own opening statement until beginning the defense. At first Erin sets out to rebut her opponent’s case on medical grounds, but as the trial goes on she begins to realize she needs to consider other approaches in order to represent her client’s interests.
The courtroom drama offers some good moments, and Emily’s story, though limited to flashbacks, is genuinely chilling. In a certain sense, whether Emily’s demons are real or in her mind doesn’t really matter as regards her terrifying experiences; it’s enough that they’re real to her.
They’re also real to Fr. Moore, who eventually seeks to cast them out, embarking upon a ritual familiar to countless moviegoers, albeit in a somewhat sensationalized form, from William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. The shadow of the earlier film looms large, not just over Emily Rose, but over any possible cinematic treatment of exorcism and demonic possession, but Derrickson wisely takes refuge in restraint, depicting both the phenomena of possible possession and the ritual of exorcism with persuasive realism in its own way more unsettling than the Hollywood antics of its lurid predecessor.
This doesn’t mean that Emily Rose is above pulling out the stops a little for the sake of dramatic effect. Erin’s own creepy experiences alone in her apartment at 3AM verge on providing confirmation for Fr. Moore’s contention that the trial is surrounded by dark forces, and that Erin herself may be a target. Yet the proceedings in the courtroom itself tend in the opposite direction, as naturalistic explanations emerge for each of Emily’s symptoms.
The film is enormously aided by effective performances from most of the principals. Linney persuasively embodies her character’s conflicted inclinations and inner struggle. Wilkinson brings absolute conviction to the role of a sincere priest whose culpability in Emily’s death remains an open question. Most impressive is Carpenter, whose startling performance as the oppressed Emily is deeply unnerving regardless of the nature of her condition.
Another Cinematic Point of Reference
I’m grateful to The Exorcism of Emily Rose for offering another cinematic point of reference for the phenomena of possession and exorcism, and for its sympathetic depiction both of the believer Fr. Moore and the skeptic Erin Bruner. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t offer the same nuance to the prosecutor, Ethan Thomas, who’s basically an uncomplicated jerk, if a generally rather persuasive one. Is it Campbell’s fault or Derrickson’s that he fairly spits out the words of his closing statement with angry venom, as if to make absolutely sure the audience remembers not to like him? Didn’t Derrickson realize that this undermined the film’s integrity? Shouldn’t Campbell have been trying to persuade the audience of Fr. Moore’s guilt?
Although Emily Rose is more grounded in the real world than The Exorcist, both films are ultimately about failed exorcisms. Both stories confront the assumptions of post-Christian modernity with the possibility of spiritual realities beyond the power of drugs or therapy to address, yet neither encourages much confidence in the authority the Church is supposed to have over the powers of hell.
On one level, there’s a certain realism to this; cases of possession can resist exorcism for weeks, months or even longer especially, perhaps, in cases where demonic influence has become deeply entrenched through involvement in spiritually hazardous occupations, such as occult involvement. What makes Emily’s case so disturbing is that she is a pious girl from a devout Catholic family, presumptively in the state of grace (Fr. Moore believes her to be a saint).
Doubtless, God’s ways are often inscrutable, yet I can’t help wondering why He might prefer possible evidence of demonic influence to trump evidence of the Church’s God-given authority to help and heal those suffering from demonic power. I’m not sure I can definitively rule out the possibility that Emily Rose (or her real-life counterpart, Anneliese Michel) was really possessed; yet I can’t say I find her story very edifying.
Others may disagree. The film’s postscript points out that the girl’s grave is now a site of pious devotion and pilgrimages. Yet is this automatically a good thing? Some pious souls may find inspiration in almost any claim of miracles or apparitions, no matter how dubious or ill-founded. Others, not unreasonably, may find such devotion superstitious and an obstacle to their own faith. Not that I begrudge anyone his or her own devotions, but I can’t necessarily condone them either.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a worthwhile story for the issues it raises and explores, though I find it ultimately tragic rather than inspiring. The exorcism failed. The girl died. The priest was indicted. If I had been on the jury, I might well have voted to convict him. Perhaps there is a moral triumph here somewhere, but it doesn’t help me. Alas, it’s like that sometimes.
(c) 2005 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.
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