Based on the case that inspired The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose begins with the death of Emily (a very convincing Jennifer Carpenter). Or rather, it begins with a few choice shots to designate her death: a farmhouse in the snow, a wasps’ nest, a desolate cornfield—and then he pained faces of her parents, siblings, and Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who had been dropping by to monitor her extended ailment, namely, possession by Satan. The medical examiner notes, “I cannot state conclusively that the cause of death was natural.” Indeed.
With this seeming downer of an opening, the film proceeds to make a case—literally, a court case—that Emily’s death serves a higher purpose. The sort of “higher purpose” that sometimes accompanies devout faith and the desire to make cosmic sense of tragedies and errors. Exorcism doesn’t actually give much credence to the non-believer’s position, even though it sets up the case with a self-identified agnostic, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), as defense attorney for Father Moore, charged with negligent homicide. He had, it comes out, attempted an exorcism, wit the help of Emily’s family, failed rather scarily; afterwards, he was only able to watch her deteriorate, of starvation and a psychotic-like inward turn. At the trial, the prosecutor, devout Christian (though not Catholic) Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott in a stuffy-looking mustache), shows a photo of her dead—emaciated, ravaged, awful. The jury gasps, and Erin knows that she has her work cut out for her.
That work clearly has to do with Erin’s career at film’s start, as she aspires to be partner in the firm where she works, the firm that represents the Archdiocese, a client who wants a plea instead of a trial, and who wants Father Moore kept off the stand at all costs. His story—or, as he insists, Emily’s story—is far too unnerving to expose to public scrutiny. And so, her boss Karl (Colm Feore) tells her to keep the trial quiet and quick. The fact that she’s an ace defender, and has just won a case that has released an accused murderer weighs heavily on her conscience when she learns, by tv news, that this client has killed someone else. Sometimes, her fallen face suggests, winning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The trial and film proceed by flashback, to lay out Emily’s road to possession. From her idyllic rural existence, she moves to the city to attend college, where she is, apparently, immediately possessed. This is revealed in a very creepy scene—dark-thundery-rainy—when she’s alone in her dorm room (roommate gone for the night) and suddenly overtaken by convulsions and making spastic faces. At the hospital, neurologists surmise she’s had seizures, and medicate her accordingly. On the stand, a doctor defends the diagnosis. In his cell, when Erin comes to visit him, Father Moore tells her to be careful, because there are “dark forces surrounding this trial, dark powerful forces.”
Undeterred, Erin spends a few spooky evenings with those forces in her home, seeing sinister shadows and hearing strange noises, waking repeatedly at three am, her clock flashing ominously (apparently, this is a specific witching hour, briefly explained during the film). She and several other characters endure the standard scary-movie walk down a daunting hallway, the camera hovering just behind. Erin chalks it up to exhaustion and immersion in the trial, though she’s starting to imagine worse, whatever that might be. Soon she’s dropping water glasses in the kitchen at night and coming to court late and bedraggled because she’s unable to sleep.
But Erin’s terrors have nothing on Emily’s—again and again in flashbacks, you share her perspective (the visual making it seem “real”): people’s faces seem to melt or turn otherwise ghastly, and really, the rain just never ends. Her almost-boyfriend at school, the very young-seeming Jason (Joshua Close) promises her that he’ll never leave her, even accompanying her home once she can no longer manage school. As he tells Erin, “So much of what we shared was like a nightmare. It woke me up. I never knew how dead I was until I met her.”
This is a hint as to the movie’s moral and spiritual trajectory, as it eventually posits Emily’s terrible experience as a sort of lesson for the rest of us. A lesson in faith, in suffering, in selflessness. For, despite its title and pile-up of spectacular horror-movie images, Exorcism is actually less about the exorcism than about interpretation. And while it suggests that science and faith have “equal” say in this process, the visual inclination toward Emily’s experience doesn’t exactly support the epilepsy argument.
The courtroom scenes do posit a series of possibilities, couched within legal, social, and medical realms: is she anorexic, epileptic, psychotic, in need of more or less medication? While Erin fidgets, Father Moore looks stern, and Emily’s family poses as background in the courtroom, the wondrous Shohreh Aghdashloo makes a brief appearance as Dr. Adani, a scientist who defends the exorcism. Just as even Erin looks to be believing, the film cuts to Emily’s rapidly escalating symptoms. She’s speaking in multiple voices (claiming to be “six”), eating bugs, starving and abusing herself physically. Father Moore is looking more and more right. As he puts it to Erin, demons exist whether you believe in them or not. And they’ll plague you just to make that point.
Demonstrating their existence appears to be Father Moore’s focus. He insists, against Erin’s advice (and Karl’s injunction), that he testify. “What matters most is that I tell Emily’s story,” he says, having heard her version of a vision (again, a scene you see in a way that approximates her experience), whereby she learns her suffering and example are God’s will. To be a good Christian, she must submit. While the Archdiocese and scientific and legal communities are trying to explain the event, Emily’s “story” is that no explanation is necessary or possible: she’s chosen.
Still, the most compelling question arising from Scott (Hellraiser: Inferno) Derrickson’s revisitation of the story has to do with audience and timing. Why now? What’s at stake for current audiences, not only in Emily’s ordeal, but in the arguments around it? And what sort of refitting makes it suitable for a PG-13 rating, aside from the omission of Linda Blair’s green-pea soup vomit and Mercedes McCambridge’s guttural obscenities in the William Friedkin version? Even if Exorcism doesn’t provide outright answers, its “lessons”—whether understood as secular or institutional—seem clear enough.