The Rite trots out the tired old belief that catering to cynical viewers’ assumptions is half the battle in convincing them that they’re seeing something new, different, or possibly just worthwhile. In this case, fears of Satan and his minions most often manifest in the form of daddy issues, which apparently everyone in the film has, and latent fears of rape.
Director Mikael Håfström (1408) and screenwriter Michael Petroni (Queen of the Damned) use that basic psychological profile in every one of the film’s exorcism cases so as to make it easier for viewers to be skeptical. Every one of the victims that Michael Kovac (Collin O’Donoghue), a skeptical young American priest, encounters in his time working under unorthodox exorcist Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), fears their father, or has no father figure to speak of and all of them have been physically touched by unholy forces, most visibly in the form of teeth marks on a boy’s belly and a sore spot that one woman can’t stop scratching. That shared experience proves to Michael that there’s a perfectly rational, mundane explanation for what’s happening to these people. It also gives Lucas more fodder for his insubstantial claims that the Devil is real because people are able to disavow his existence.
Lucas’s ridiculous claims are a tired bluff that Håfström and Petroni use as the cornerstone of their film. They assume that if they make it easy to think of possession as an act of psychologically damaged victims and not a plot by the Father of All Lies, we’ll pay more attention. And yet, that flawed assumption comes from the film’s equally uninspired central premise: Lack of proof is not a proof of lack, also known as the “argument from ignorance” fallacy. The Rite doesn’t need to execute any of its ideas, have any charm, or even be anything more than just another paint-by-numbers post-The Exorcist movie about demonic possession. So Håfström and Petroni don’t aspire to deliver much beyond that. We are, after all, talking about a film that assumes that casting Hannibal Lector as an exorcist who—spoilers!—inevitably must be possessed so as to prove to Michael the existence of God by proving the existence of Lucifer, was a novel idea.
Hopkins’s performance is fun, but by now, seeing him play another wily old Byronic antihero and later a reluctant villain just isn’t scary. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything on the line in the scene where a possessed Lucas assaults Michael, mocking him with mile-a-minute taunts and practically rubbing Michael’s face with his own visage, which, at the time, is molting thanks to a bad case of satanic CGI eczema. Admittedly, it’d take a lot to make Hopkins scary again: He could be voguing while singing “Trapped in the Closet” and it’d still be basically boring. Simply invoking the devil we know just isn’t enough anymore, and I don’t think Håfström and Petroni get that.