Monday, January 31, 2011
"The Rite" (opened January 28 throughout San Diego) is the latest Hollywood film to deal with exorcism.
"The Exorcist" came out in 1972 and it's sad to say that it still stands as the best film on possession that Hollywood has turned out. The key to its success was that director William Friedkin didn't direct it as if it were a horror film but rather as a drama that turns horrific. Some of the scariest moments are not the famous head spinning or other special effects shots but rather the quieter moments and the horrors of what doctors did to to the young girl to find out why she was behaving so strangely.
"The Rite" starts promisingly and with a similar lack of an overt horror agenda. Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) is the son of a mortician (Rutger Hauer in a nice extended cameo). Kovak explains to a friend that people in his family either become priests or morticians. So he decides to go to seminary school. One of his teachers thinks Kovak's skepticism will serve him well in a special program in Rome to train exorcists. This leads Kovak to Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a veteran priest who has been performing exorcisms for as long as he can remember.
The film begins well because there's a sense of skepticism about religion and possession yet a respect for a certain spirituality. The early scenes of Kovak with his father preparing bodies for burial are well done and lay an interesting foundation for Kovak as he goes through seminary school. He considers himself an atheist and you feel that part of the reason for that is he has seen death close up and seems convinced that once life ends there is nothing else. When he visits Father Lucas he sees possessions first hand, or at least what Father Lucas calls possessions. This challenges his skepticism especially when it appears that the devil has gotten into Father Lucas.
The film is well shot by Ben Davis ("Layer Cake," "Kick-Ass") and in the early goings when the film is still raising doubts about god and religion, "The Rite" is effective in creating a creepy mood. But this all goes to hell as soon as the film tries to convince us possessions are real and so is the devil. The more it tries to make its case and the more it tries to go for overt scares, the more it fails.
Director Mikael Håfström has given us a number of uneven horror/psychological thrillers in the past: "Evil," "Derailed," and "1408." Each film showed some promise and style but none succeeded fully. The same is true with "The Rite." As with the recent "The Last Exorcism," "The Rite" finds something of interest to start with in its tale of possession and the devil but doesn't know where to go or how to maintain interest without becoming laughable.
"The Rite" benefits from the presence of Anthony Hopkins. I'd watch him read a phone book. So he's entertaining to watch and he makes the most of the part, downplaying some early scenes before chewing the scenery to shreds later. Colin O'Donoghue is something of a blank slate as Kovak. He claims to be a skeptic but doesn't seem any more committed to that perspective than to the Catholic Church. He's bland but attractive. Alice Braga provides additional eye candy and tries to bring some humanity to the film as a journalist trying to get at the truth about exorcisms in a Catholic coutry.
"The Rite" (rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images, and language including sexual references and in English and Italian with English subtitles) needs to exorcise itself of some demons. It needs to do away with the cheap scares that come at the end and come up with a better way of trying to convince us that the devil may indeed exist. One underrated and fairly recent film about possession was "The Fallen," with Denzel Washinston chasing a fallen angel that's jumping bodies. That film was creepy and nicely done. But I still think the two best films about exorcism and/or the devil are older films: "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby."
Companion viewing: "The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby," "Fallen," "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "Aftermath"