Thursday, July 06, 2006


THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005, USA, Scott Derrickson, screenplay with Paul Harris Boardman)
People say that God is dead, but how can they think that if I show them the Devil?

I know people have qualms about this one. I can only say I was completely caught up in it, deeply affected, and extremely proud of what Scott Derrickson has accomplished. I think EMILY ROSE is one of the most direct apologetics both for the reality of Evil and the authenticity of the Christian faith that I've seen represented on film. And I don't think it's a mere tract, the kind of Christian propaganda movie we all dread that does nothing but bully an audience with over-argued apologetics that mostly just provoke us to take up the other side.

Though marketed as a straight-up horror movie, EMILY ROSE aims to be much, much more than simply scary (though it is that): it tries – and I think it mostly succeeds – to examine the possibility that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in most of our philosophies. Oh, Scott does the scary stuff real good: I'm sure there are plenty of viewers who will feel he's at his best in the straight-ahead horror sections. But how thrilling for me to see a film – especially in a cash-cow genre that's been milked of any real significance – make the risky choice to take these these things absolutely seriously, not just as a terrific premise for scaring people and taking their money, but as authentic phenomena with real spiritual significance.

Predominantly, supernatural horror films grab anything at hand that will render maximum fright quotient, to grab maximum box office buck: there's no thought of treating the genre ingredients with respect, with authenticity, as if these stories offer anything that might relate to real human experience. Vampire hunters wield crosses, but only as weapons: scripture is magic incantation rather than spiritual truth. Characters are treated as plot puppets rather than human beings: they are on a Dangerous Adventure In Another World, but are not on any real spiritual journey of their own. They have emotions and motivations, but not souls, and certainly not eternal souls.

EMILY ROSE treats its central characters with integrity, as human beings, and it argues passionately that to dismiss the possibility of supernatural evil and the validity (indeed, the necessity) of a spiritual response, may be not only foolish but deadly dangerous. The Catholic church gets bad press these days, and I'm not sure the cross-wielding (even cross-bow-wielding), holy water sprinkling demon hunters don't do as much to trivialize and marginalize it as sex-abuse scandals and media cliches of corrupt officials, ineffectual priests and ignorant parishioners. Derrickson seeks to rescue these holy symbols from the pop cultural recycling bin, to re-invest them with the legitimacy and authority they need to protect us from the Dark. However willing this director is to use the horror movie tropes, he never lets go his central theme: these are not out-of-date superstitions and rituals indulged in by untrustworthy religion mongers, and we forget that at our own peril. Jesus took the power of the evil one quite seriously, if the gospels are to be trusted: we who put our trust in the gospels do well to do the same.

As effective as the film is in frightening us, I respect the fact that there is a line it does not cross. There is an integrity there. At times I felt assaulted, but never violated: the film horrifies, but does not offend. I may not always want to look, but I never feel I am seeing what I shouldn't see. The camera is never prurient.

Simply considered as a movie, EMILY ROSE is at its best when the devil's around. As a genre film-maker, Derrickson knows the ropes: the high-intensity direct encounters with evil are visceral, intense, extreme, without going over the top or lapsing into laughable improbability, and the director is equally strong at setting up those sequences with sustained tension, creating oppressive environments with unsettling images. For all the rain and Catholicism, he doesn't go gothic: there's a dispiriting flatness to key locales that evokes the kind of experiential deadness that has everything to do with evil. The Rose house has an abandoned, autumnal look. Things are out of joint: wasps swarm around an unseasonal grey hive, farm cats move away as if pressed down by some invisible weight. The despairing university campus haunts me hours after the film has ended, reflecting Emily's own oppressed psyche with sterile concrete architecture, noisy cafeterias, soulless cinderblock dorm rooms and poorly-lit basement classrooms. In a more superficial horror film, these settings are merely creepy, serving as nothing but tension builders, moody set-ups for the dreaded explosions of terror or violence to come. While they do function that way in EMILY ROSE, they also achieve something far more significant than that, something that humanizes this film in a remarkable way.

The humanity of Derrickson's approach is seen most powerfully in the character of Emily Rose. She is never just a plot device, a human football to be kicked around by the demons, a living football field on which God's squad and Satan's team battle for victory. Jennifer Carpenter is an exceptionally gifted and experienced stage actress, a graduate both of the Juilliard School in New York and the Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville who brings both tremendous technique and powerful personal connection to the role. She plays its outsized demands with an utter physical and emotional commitment that somehow manages to sidestep all the pitfalls inherent in so physically extended (and at times bizarre) a role. She never mis-steps into caricature or cliche: she renders Emily with the same artistry and authenticity she brought to Mary Warren in The Crucible on Broadway, and we are able to see Emily for what she is: not a horror-movie monster, but an ordinary human soul. Maybe even an extraordinary one.

Emily's university experiences root the film in a human reality that renders the supernatural sequences far more deeply affecting: this is precisely how life feels for thousands of isolated students on campuses everywhere. This is exactly how cold and alienating a university campus can look, especially in the unrelenting drizzle of a cold fall rain. The pathetic fallacy isn't just a fallacy: at least in our perceptions, the physical world can very much embody the weather of our souls. As darkness closes in on this young woman, it matters little whether the demonic faces are real or imagined: they lay seige to her soul. I was especially shaken by the resolute determination of Emily's oh-so-young, oh-so-courageous boyfriend to stand by her, though he had nothing to offer but helpless love and proximity. How many early-budding college romances end up traveling equally terrible (if less overtly supernatural) journeys? What could equip this good-hearted boy for such a long and terrifying dark night of the soul? I felt for these kids.

I also felt for Emily's family, deftly drawn with few lines and solid performances. The sister who is sent with a message to the upstairs bedroom where her depressed sister has separated herself from the family, standing outside in the hall and hearing her sister's voice mumbling away in the empty room. The mother and father who are not the rural gothic rubes we expect them to be – this is a horror movie, after all. Simple, yes, but not simple-minded. Troubled, yes, but what sane person wouldn't be? It turns out the Rose house may not conceal ugly family secrets after all. Not all evil is so easily explained.

While Derrickson succeeds in breathing unexpected humanity into the people around Emily, and in using a certain visual flatness to great effect in the university setting, he doesn't get the same payoffs with the other secondary element in the film. Once the film's truly unsettling opening has passed, we step through a series of obligatory lawyer-biz scenes that seem to come right off a not-very-inspired TV set: the characters are stock, the "rising star in the legal firm" backstory standard issue, and soon enough we can't wait to flee the limbo of that boring bar, even if it means fleeing into the welcome presence of Satan. Better evil, well-portrayed, than mundanity rendered banal.

Some viewers find the courtroom scenes similarly uninspired, and that is surely a weakness in a film that's as much courtroom drama as horror movie. The arguments move forward methodically, the setting is visually mundane, drained of any possible mystery or drama. But all that worked for me. This is where we work with facts, the very walls seem to say. This is the real world: we don't believe in ghosts here. How lurid and improbable these medieval religious images look in such a utilitarian frame. If you can prove your case here, you've really done somethingl.

The problem with genres is that they set such rigid expectations: horror flicks start scary and get scarier, and then finish up with an unbearably scary climax; courtroom stories are filled with brilliantly engineered plot reversals, unexpected revelations that change everything, and stunning rhetoric that carries the day. Fans of both genres will have their expectations thwarted. It starts out scary, and rises to some pretty horrific climaxes, but that's not the emotional territory where it plays out its final act. We watch the case progress through the court, but we witness the methodical unfolding of an argument rather than the more melodramatic twists and turns of a fictional legal suspense story. If the central dramatic (and legal, and philosophical) question grips you as it did me – if you think it is important to wonder whether such supernatural horrors might actually be something more than, or at least something other than, the psychological horrors of mental illness – and if the jury is still out for you on the matter, as it is for me – then EMILY ROSE may work as superbly well for you as it did for me. If these questions seem to you insignificant, or if your verdict is already in – or if all you really want is to watch a genre flick – this one may very disappoint.

What will not disappoint are the performances not only of relative newcomer Jennifer Carpenter, but of Tom Wilkinson as the surprisingly three-dimensional and compassionate priest, and the always extraordinary Laura Linney as his defence attorney. This story may not afford Linney the scope of something like YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, but her intelligence and humanity provide an entrance point for an audience that will share her healthy skepticism about the priest's story, and which may find itself following along on her journey away from the cut-and-dried rationalist assumptions with which she begins the story into intellectual and spiritual territory that's far more ambiguous.

We also follow her as she pursues the central line of argument not only of the court case but of the film itself. Perhaps scientific/medical models are not the only ways of viewing the world; perhaps they involve speculation, theory, subjectivity and "leaps of faith" in the same way religious models do; perhaps not all priests are monsters, perhaps not all Catholics uneducated rubes, perhaps sometimes spiritual solutions are best suited for spiritual maladies; perhaps supernatural phenomena (such as demonic possession, for example) are worthy of legitimate inquiry; perhaps there is more in heaven and in earth. The film doesn't ultimately set out to establish "proof" by irrefutable argument - that may be the strategy of late-night talk show guests, but wouldn't appeal to most folks who aren't already convinced paranormalists - but rather to establish reasonable doubt toward the empirical-rationalist scientism that insists "such things cannot happen, and people who believe such things are dangerous." Perhaps too great a reliance on the machineries of science can also be dangerous?

EMILY ROSE makes the case for the reasonableness of religious belief: more precisely, for the wisdom of seasoning our certainties about the world with a certain reasonable doubt. If my summation of the film's argument makes it sound like a mere tract, rest assured it is not: this may not be a perfect film, but it is a dramatically powerful one, well acted and bloody scary - all the moreso when one realizes the director is playing for keeps. Derrickson isn't content to slap together another midway house of horrors or freak show that so many fright flick directors are willing to be: he treats supernatural evil as something all too real and deadly powerful, and that is truly frightening. He tells us that otherworldly darkness may visit not only Rwandan killing fields or hearts of darkness in Africa or Vietnam, but even a decent prairie farmhouse or cinderblock university dorm room. "The horror, the horror...."


Available at Videomatica

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