The Exorcist meets The Contender in the The Exorcism of Emily Rose, in which an eyes-on-the-glass-ceiling attorney played by Laura Linney gets to defend a priest (Tom Wilkinson) for denying a girl medical attention during an exorcism and ostensibly contributing to her death. “Before she went away to university,” recalls the girl’s grief-stricken mother at least twice, as if to suggest that the demons of the liberal arts that lurk outside her red-state farm’s border—in a “big city” college—were really to blame for her daughter’s supernatural possession. It’s one of many condescending stances director Scott Derrickson takes throughout the film, which pits spirituality against secularism in a court of law, defending each side with such righteous, calculated equal-opportunity you know some suit at Sony is applauding himself for coming up with a concept that would wrangle fans of The Passion of the Christ and everyone else in the world into the same room and possibly get them talking—except there’s nothing to discuss here except for how little room the filmmakers allow for subjective thought.
The witless, didactic squabbling between Linney’s agnostic defender and Campbell Scott’s “man of faith” prosecutor covers every point in the facts-versus-God handbook, unraveling like a Screenplay 101 exercise in dramatic irony and character arcing. (I’ve witnessed more complicated existential wrangling exchanged between two tokers.) Strangely, the story allows the titular exorcism to take a backseat to all the you-got-served courtroom hysteria, reducing Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) to some simulation dummy: Erin Brunner (Linney) and Ethan Thomas (Scott) state their respective it-coulda-been-Satan and epilepsy-was-to-blame cases for the honorable multi-culti jury (Mary Beth Hurt serves as the finger-waving attorney and Shohreh Aghdashloo makes an appearance as an exotic voice of reason), with Emily Rose dutifully acting out the conflicting theories via a series of flashbacks.
The possession scenes show promise early on—a gorgeous shot of Emily Rose running in front a school building cloaked in red-orange light is an obvious Suspiria shout-out and a bleeding painting reveals a chilling vision of the Angel of Darkness—but in spite of Carpenter’s disturbing physical contortions, her supernatural screaming, like the constant cracking of her joints and the perpetual drone of the score, soon wear on the nerves—it’s as if the film was put through a J-horror filter in post-production (a pack of riled-up black horses even makes an appearance in the ridiculous second act of the girl’s two-stage exorcism). But nothing is as noisy as the haughty ecumenical power struggle at the film’s center, which left a priest at the press screening I attended in a seemingly confused stupor—I couldn’t tell if he was blessing the film or trying to exorcise it.