Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Legalese & Lucifer: The New Yorker finds The Exorcism of Emily Rose a mixed bag

Like many other Americans this weekend, I went to see the Exorcism of Emily Rose. The trailer for this film was one of the scariest I'd seen in a long time. In fact I remember when it first started making the rounds, I would hear people joking about how the trailer for Emily Rose was scarier than any moment in the whole film of Dark Water. (The Trailer was running in front of Dark Water)

The trailer is undeniably creepy; the sound design, with the demonic rattling laughter in stereo, peoples' eyes dissolve into holes of dripping black soot, and the terrible agonized facial contortions of possessed Emily Rose were enough to make anyone jump in their seat. For a minute there it seemed like TEOEM (The Exorcism of Emiliy Rose) was going to be the best "devil" movie since The Exorcist.

But like many other movies these days, TEOEM did not exactly deliver on what it advertised. I imagine anyone who saw that trailer was going in a damn scary horror movie. But that's not what it was. In theory, what TEOEM strove to accomplish was interesting; a fusing of the courtroom drama and horror genres. While I always applaud film maker's efforts to try something new or unusual and defy genre conventions, the film's execution did not allow for the most creative or unique outcome of the story.

The actual events that took place upon which this movie is based, occurred in the 1970's. As far as i can remember the film never once stated what date it was, but somehow managed to capture a 70's feel, while seemingly taking place in the present. Laura Linney wore finely tailored modern suits instead of outlandish bell bottoms and peasant blouses, and her associate had a cell phone, but her apartment was decorated in 70's furniture and her alarm clock looked like an antique of a couple decades ago. These subtle nods in both the production design and the costuming that made it a bit ambiguous as to when it was taking place, and added an interesting touch. In fact the entire film looked good, it was shoot adroitly, and the lighting was cool, contributing to that whole 70's affect with mod-ish color schemes in the background incorporating mauve and aqua backlighting. Emily's transformation was quite disturbing, and the visual effects that were implemented blended in nice with her performance, and were not over the top. Performances all around were good. I thought Laura Linney did solid work as always, as did Tom Wilkinson, despite the barriers of his role.

In many ways, TEOEM was like a dolled up version of a compelling Law and Order episode. While I don't much follow Law and Order anymore, I was a big fan of the show in its early years. An elemental part of that series (or at least what it used to be) was that each episode primarily revolved around whatever criminal case was at hand. There weren't really many episodes that focused on the individual characters, and certainly not in terms of their personal lives. It had a sort of cold, removed feeling to it --which worked perfectly with the crime genre. But because you got to watch the characters week in and week out, one was able, over time, to develop a sense of what kind of people the main characters were, and appreicate those small moments exchange between the series regulars. This made the show truly worthwhile.

The problem with TEOEM was that in many ways it mirrored the tone and format of a TV cop/law drama. When the movie begins, we are quickly introduced to Laura Linney's character, Erin Bruner, a tough cookie criminal defense lawyer, who is still riding off the high of a recent victory. As she savors her martini at a posh bar full of professionals, her boss approaches Erin and tells her about the Emily Rose case. Father Moore (played by Tom Wilkinson) is a Catholic priest who has been accused of negligent homicide, the DA stating the case that he was responsible for Emily Rose's death. The archdiocese of the Catholic church is all up in a tizzy because they don't want bad publicity from the trial about one of their own performing a demonic exorcism. Erin and her boss come to an agreement that if takes and wins the case on behalf of Father Moore, then she will be offered a partnership at her law firm.

But instead of spending much time developing either Erin or Father Moore's character --the film jumps pretty quickly to requisite exposition, some of which felt a bit labored and procedural. Shortly after the scene at the bar, Erin meets Father Moore in his jail cell, who comes off sounding like a crazy old coot with his talk about demons and the dark side. She doesn't seem particularly disturbed by his talk of the supernatural and tells him outright that the only reason she took this case was because if she won it she would make partner. At this point in the film we have established that Erin Bruner is a tough as nails hard ass lawyer who is a workaholic, with potentially alcoholic tendencies. Father Moore is a humble but resolute man who refuses to agree to a plea bargin because of his commitment to telling Emily Rose's story the way it was meant to be told, (his innocence in the case appears to be a secondary issue). In addition to Erin and Moore, we get a small glimpse to Emily's past life, when Erin makes a stop at the Rose home. There, she learns from Emily's mother what a nice, religious, young girl she was. Emily had been attending a University, where she was studying to be a teacher, for only a short while, before her "possession" began.

But while we learn all these things about the three main characters, within the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the movie, around whom the film revolves, we don't really ever learn much more. The story of Emily Rose is told throughout the progression of Father Moore's trial. People's testimonies turn into flashbacks that depict what happened to Emily. Interspersed between the courtroom scenes and the flashbacks are investigative scenes where Erin is questioning potential witnesses or doing work on the case. Overall there are very few scenes spent on the actual characters in this film. Most everything just seems to be done for the sake of the plot. But a plot without rich and fleshed out characters isn't very compelling. In particular, since TEOEM was not a traditional horror film, and could not get by on the merits of scares and gore alone, there needed to be some sort of emotional lynchpin, that exists in all successful dramas to drive it.

According to the DA, Father Moore was on trial because he convinced Emily to discontinue her medical treatment for her mental and physical state, and instead focus on a path of religious and spiritual healing that would rid her of these demons. The DA argued that Emily suffered from epilespy and psychosis, and could have lived and improved from her ailments if she continued on her course of medications. Throughout the trial, both Father Moore and Erin kept iterating how much Moore cared for Emily, and how he was with her until the final hour. But we did not see any of this. In fact Father Moore's character on the whole struck me as fairly stock and generic. The film was obviously trying to portray him in a positive light, but so truly little about him was exposed throughout the course of the film. How can the audience root for someone that they don't know? Never once in the film did he talk about his own personal feelings or thoughts, save for his singular desire to tell "Emily's Story". Nothing else seemed to matter much to him. While he embodies the charitable, humble and selfless qualities that one would expect from a man of the cloth, I wanted to know about Moore's personal relationship with God. I wanted to know about how scared he was when he saw "the dark figure" of the devil appear to him when he became involved in helping Emily. I want to know more about his possible feelings of failure that he might have had about not being able to perform a successful exorcism on Emily. Unfortunately we don't get to see any of this. The only scene that we do get to see between Father Moore and Emily are when she is completely under the control of the demons, lashing out violently at him. Particularly, because of the ultimate message of the film, I think it would have been beneficial for the film to include scenes where Father Moore and Emily interact when she is herself.

I feel somewhat similarly about Laura Linney's character, Erin Bruner, there were a couple of neat moments in the film that painted detail into her narrative portrait, but I thought they could have gone even further in developing her character.

We know that Erin is a lawyer who throws herself into her work, yet on the first couple days of trial she seems ill prepared in the courtroom. There were snippets shown of Erin's cursory note taking, seeming more interested in sipping her wine and staring off into space. These moments (for instance), could have been used to build upon the idea that perhaps she was actually a slacker despite her apparent hard earned success. But it didn't. There are also couple of tense sequences that take place in Erin's apartment when she wakes up at 3 AM (apparently also known as the devil's witching hour) which were suspenseful and creepy, but could have been used more to show how Erin's mentality was shifting. Erin's character starts out in the film as an agnostic who doesn't really believe anything unless it has a solid foundation of proof and evidence under it --but she ends up as someone who believes in the power of the faith and the possibility of the unknown. While I think this was a perfectly logical arc for this character in this film (hey, at least she had an arc unlike Father Moore), her transition from a woman of little faith to a believer seemed abrupt. There is a scene in the film where her and Father Moore are sitting in his jail cell. Moore asks her if she remembers him warning her about the "dark forces" that surround this case. She nods at him with the sort of look as if to say "right...dark forces...whatever you say...". But then her mood suddenly changes and she moves over to sit on the cot with him for an earnest heart to heart. What she tells him, I actually found to be very poignant, and it was probably one of my favorite moments of the film. She begins telling Father Moore about something that happened to her the other day, and as she tells him, the film shows a flashback of the incident, where she is walking in the snow and cold and finds a locket on the ground. The locket that she finds has her exact three initials on it. Erin tells Father Moore, that she felt as if it were beyond a coincidence and it felt like a sign to her, that she was exactly where she was supposed to be in her life at that moment. There was something about that idea that I really liked and struck me. I thought this scene captured the essence of the film, but I wish it hadn't been book ended so sloppily, and had been given time to breath instead of having it shuffled along by the constant (and at times tedious) pace of the film. There was another moment too where Erin is at her favorite bar, and she sees some disturbing developments on the evening news. The man that she had defended in her most recent case, who she had gotten acquitted of murder charges, had just been arrested for killing a couple. We see in her face for a moment, Erin's "own demons" that haunt her --and the moral conflict that follows her line of work. I really wish that the film had cultivated more moments like these, because when a film can intertwine and connect the thematic underpinnings of characters emotional moments, it really goes to the next level.

The mantra of the film seemed to revolve around telling the true story of what happened to Emily. (It is also the official tagline of the film) But in the end, I don't think anything that shocking or astounding was revealed. Father Moore specifically says at one point that not only does he wish to share the details of Emily's experience with the world, but also to specifically explain why this happened to Emily. But at the end of the day I didn't feel satisfied with the answer to why she was.

Towards the very end of the film Erin brings into evidence a letter that Emily had written to Father Moore the day after he performed the failed exorcism. In this letter, Emily writes of a vision that she had, where she fell out of her possessed body, and her whole spirit communed with the Virgin Mother. Emily was told by Mary that she could leave her earthly body behind and cast off her suffering as her spirit went to heaven. Or she could stay in her body, and ride out the pain, and in this way prove to people that demons do exist --and that if demons exist, then so does God. Emily chose to sacrifice herself so that all could see that the Spiritual world is very real and not imaginary. While I can buy a certain amount of the fact that Emily was just an innocent who was chosen at random, as either a work of God (or the devil), I wanted to see at least a little speculation about why it was her who was so specifically targeted. They talked about her going in and out of herself while she struggled with these possessions, but almost every single scene with her in it, was her either being tortured by the demons, or being controlled by them. I would have liked to see more scenes of Emily as herself, witnessing her and her faith. Naturally, it was horrible to watch her being ravaged by the demons, but it would have been even more powerful if we knew more about the person she truly was.

I kept waiting for some huge twist or secret to be unraveled in this film. I suppose the big "reveal" was that Emily was taken to prove to the world that God exists --but that seems almost too grand in scope to really comprehend or relate too. I also felt the film was in part deflated at the end because of the strange verdict settled on by the jury in the case. I don't know what the actual verdict was that the Catholic priest received in real life, but the jury finding Father Moore guilty and then recommending time served as a sentence was a little too pat and neat. At the very end we learn that Father Moore must leave his parish, and Erin will leave her law firm, each of them to begin a new phase in life's journey. But I felt a little underwhelmed by the journey that I had just seen on screen. Because after all is said and done this film is a drama about spirituality and personal faith, personal being the key word. But you can't have a film about those things without getting a real sense of the people that you are watching on screen; I mean really getting a sense of their spirit and soul --not just a brief glimpse here and there. I think this film had potential, but ultimately I think its resonance was diminished by a lack of "human" moments with its central characters. When you only have two hours to present your story, you can't afford to play the cold shoulder too much with your audience ---like some TV can.


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