'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' is a well-crafted, creepy film that explores profound questions about the nature of God. Does He exist? Do you really want to know?
By John Zmirak
Looking for a feel-good movie this weekend? Something for grown-ups that addresses the everyday crises and disappointments of life, but ends with a warm, suffusing sense that all is well, and every problem, if honestly faced by a genuinely good-looking protagonist, can be solved within 120 minutes? Then this is not the movie for you. Go see Wedding Crashers instead.
The film raises and addresses profound questions about the nature of evil but doesn’t pretend to answer them. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the kind of movie that disturbs while it entertains. The film depicts (employing poetic license) the by six demons and was approved for exorcism by her local diocese. The exorcism
was protracted, horrific, and futile. She died of malnutrition, and the priest in charge was prosecuted for criminal neglect.
The film is a courtroom drama centered on the trial, suffused with flashbacks to apparently preternatural
, and profoundly disturbing events. The protagonist is the priest's lawyer (played by the ever-brilliant Laura Linney), a cynical agnostic driven by ambition, hired by a shame-faced diocese to hush the whole thing up. But the priest (portrayed by the compelling Tom Wilkinson), refuses to cop a plea—insisting that he must take the stand and "tell Emily Rose's story. That's what she wanted." The prosecutor, a dour Protestant (played with silk and steel rectitude by Campbell Scott), brings an army of expert witnesses to try to prove that Emily had a diagnosed, treatable psychiatric condition—"psychotic epilepsy
"—which the priest culpably ignored in favor of exorcism. Thus the film presents forensically the clash between contemporary scientific humanism and spiritual warfare
. The contest is presented impartially, with men of each tradition speaking cogently and persuasively for their points of view—including the priest. As the director said, "It really was one of my goals to present a Catholic priest as a character with dignity and respect. I think Catholics and priests are such easy fodder for stereotype and vilification. I wanted to create character you couldn't help but respect for his passion and integrity."
The film raises and addresses profound questions about the nature of evil and why God permits the suffering of the innocent—but doesn't pretend to answer them. And that's just what the filmmaker intended. Scott Derrickson, a graduate of the artsy Christian liberal arts university, Biola
, calls himself an "orthodox Christian" and confesses that he's addicted to the novels of Walker Percy
, and to reading and re-reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy
. In fact, as Derrickson told me in an interview, Catholic screenwriting maven Barbara Nicolosi warns him, "You're just one Chesterton book away from crossing the Tiber," and becoming a Catholic. Whatever his background, Derrickson has crafted a compelling drama which sends you out of the theater feeling queasily fascinated, wondering if you need to seek some kind of protection, despite your faith or lack thereof.
I expect that this film will drive some people afflicted by unfamiliar voices and eerie occurrences to pester priests with the suggestion that they might be possessed. And the priests will do what the Church tells them to do—send these poor souls to the doctor. As the film makes clear, Church officials are extremely skeptical about such claims, insisting that every natural explanation and treatment be completely exhausted before a spiritual cause is inferred for a person's distress. When Catholics get a toothache, they're supposed to go to the dentist—not to Lourdes.
When Catholics get a toothache, they’re supposed to go to the dentist—not to Lourdes. I raised with the director the possibility that the film might provoke a panic about demonic possession—as had The Exorcist, which some said inspired the delusions endured by Anneliese Michel, the real Bavarian girl upon whom "Emily Rose" is based. Derrickson admitted that it was a danger. "But as a filmmaker, I feel responsible for the effect my work would have on normal, balanced people—not on the small number of troubled souls. I mean, you can point to several serial killers who carried around the Bible. They just didn't understand it. The Bible's full of provocative, dangerous stuff."
(To read how the movie The Omen screwed me up almost irreparably, click here
Derrickson admits that he didn't follow the facts of the case as closely as one would in making a biopic (such as Kinsey
). "I felt obliged to take this true story and do it justice by creating a thought-provoking film that caused people to think deeply about the subject of whether there's a spiritual realm. I thought this was a great way of getting into those questions. It's a work of fiction based on a real thing that happened."
The real things that happened, according to the film, are fairly disturbing—especially for a believer. Emily Rose was not a Satanist or an aspiring witch; she'd never even touched a Ouija board. Indeed, she was the pious, virginal daughter of a devoutly Catholic family—the last person who'd open herself to demonic possession. But demons seem to have kicked down the door, and tormented her for years, until Fr. Moore undertook a course of exorcisms—which failed. If a faithful and holy priest like Fr. Moore cannot expel the forces of evil from the soul of an innocent by invoking the name of Jesus... one begins to wonder: What's the point? Which side is really stronger, after all? What kind of a God permits such innocent suffering; is He sadistic, incompetent, or merely distracted? Is the Creator an overworked cosmic chef who's put one too many universes on the stove, and hasn't noticed that ours is bubbling over?
Derrickson says he wanted to raise such questions, rather than answer them. "I'm kind of a doubter by nature. That's been a big part of my spiritual journey. What I found personally compelling about this tale is that there's no easy way to resolve the questions the movie presents. There's no simple, clean-cut obvious answer. But the questions it raises are important for everybody. I'm not interested in trying to propagate my own view. It's much more about asking the right questions," he said.
If a holy priest cannot expel the forces of evil, then one begins to wonder: Which side is really stronger, after all? The answer offered by the film's most heroic characters—Fr. Moore and Emily Rose herself—is that Emily is a "victim soul
," an innocent who willingly offers to "