Exorcism films tend to make up one of the more rigid of horror-movie subgenres, as even a formulaic slasher flick promises the potential surprise of a third-act reveal of the killer. Despite opening acts that may feign ambiguity, exorcism movies have an inevitability that dampens the potential mystery, as demons are always proven to exist, and skeptics are always confirmed as hopelessly egotistical heathens destined to succumb to Satan. These films, then, tend to be about as good as their leading men, as they require an actor (and by actor I mean a man, as women are permitted to be heroes in these films about as often as atheists are proven to be correct) who projects just the right combination of compelling interior torture and enjoyably overwrought horror-movie theatrics.
And, in this respect, The Rite delivers on the typically modest terms of the exorcism film. Anthony Hopkins's Father Lucas is an embodiment of the actor's specialty: The aloof, wily, slightly loony elder-statesmen genius who teaches a naïve, cocky upstart the secret truths of whatever profession the film happens to concern. Father Lucas is a priest who is naturally an unorthodox specialist in the occult, living in a dingy little apartment somewhere in the outskirts of Rome. The film, in unusually and refreshingly specific terms, establishes that priests are required to consult with psychiatrists to determine if the potentially possessed are actually insane, but Father Lucas, once again in the Hopkins tradition, requires no such consultation, as he's also a licensed doctor in his own right. He's a one-man team, a person of the cloth who plays by his own rules while adhering to a somewhat personal approach to his profession that speaks to years of true-life experience. Part thinking man, part gloriously ludicrous horror-movie badass, Hopkins attacks the role of Father Lucas with an appealing fervor that never condescends to the material.
Hopkins keeps The Rite, which is otherwise just okay, mostly humming along, but there's also a lot of boring spiritual mumbo jumbo and weightless conflict to wade through first, as the opening half hour is distressingly Hopkins-free. The official lead and obligatory skeptic is Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), a tormented American priest-in-training with daddy issues who eventually falls into helping Father Lucas treat a pregnant teenage girl who's developed a habit of contorting her limbs in painful positions while uttering the usual profanities in culturally alien tongues, among other things. It's quite clear, early on, that the young woman was probably – in a plot turn similar to The Last Exorcism—raped and impregnated by her father, which would explain her behavior as reflective of disturbing yet rationally justified trauma.
The Father and Father-in-training duke it out, reenacting the traditional faith debate as the film gradually builds toward an otherworldly climax that allows Hopkins to cut loose even more than usual. Director Mikael Håfström, who made the competent but disappointingly bombastic 1408, stages the proceedings here with a somewhat subtler touch that nicely suggests the forbidden evil underneath the ancient, gorgeous Roman architecture. But O'Donohue's fatal blandness deflates the tension that Håfström never commits to anyway, as the film can't seem to quite decide if it wants to be a credible exploration of faith or another full-throttle horror film. The Rite, then, is ultimately a pleasant-yet-forgettable afternoon with one of cinema's grandest contemporary hams.
The transfer nicely preserves the kind of rich, foreboding ultra-dark black and blues that are paramount to establishing the air of unease and dread that's expected of the quasi-religious horror film. The color contrast, which can get murky in transfers of horror films, is notably precise here, as you can make out every crack of wood or shard of glass that potentially spells doom for the heroes. The sound mix effectively immersing us in the various tormented screams and abrupt jolts.
"The Rite: Soldier of God" is a forgettable advertisement masquerading as a doc, composed of snippets of interviews with Father Gary Thomas (a real exorcist who inspired the film), Mikael Håfström, and an amusingly indifferent Anthony Hopkins, among others. "Soldier of God" labors to emphasize The Rite's supposedly true-life roots, which is somewhat ludicrous considering that the film, while fitfully enjoyable, is still indistinguishable from any number of other exorcism films regardless of its real-life pretensions. The deleted scenes are mostly discarded bits and pieces that don't matter, though a moment between Kovak and his father (a never more grizzled Rutger Hauer) should have probably remained in the film, as it packs a fairly effective emotional punch that's missing from the film proper. The alternate ending is a mere marketing ploy, a lame gotcha epilogue that adds nothing.
This package offers a nice transfer of a not-altogether-unpleasant time killer.