Based on a true story (uh…yeah, right; read below). Father Moore is arrested for negligent homicide in the death of Emily Rose after an exorcism. Agnostic lawyer Erin Bruner takes his case. With the medical evidence pointing toward Emily suffering from epileptic psychosis, she decides to base her defense around Emily actually being possessed, a position that is reinforced when she finds mildly odd things happening to her at night. Father Moore only cares about telling Emily’s story: how she went away to school and was taken over by six evil spirits. How she was returned to her fanatically religious parents (that’s considered a good thing), saw the Virgin Mary, yada, yada, yada. It all means God is great, because he likes to torture young girls, and people who believe should be above the law.
It takes balls to lie so blatantly. Avowed evangelical Christian director Scott Derrickson wanted to make a point (and Screen Gems wanted to sell their film to the Christian right that had just paid a lot of money to see The Passion of the Christ) and he wasn’t concerned with little things like truth. The Exorcism of Emily Rose was sold as a true story, but it is true in the same way that The Wizard of Oz is true. After all, a tornado did hit a farm in Kansas—sometime.
The true story the film is based on is that of Anneliese Michel. Let’s count the ways it is similar to Emily Rose’s. Well, both have a girl dying after an exorcism, and both have a priest arrested. That’s about it. Let’s count the ways they don’t match. Anneliese’s case took place in Wurzburg, Germany in 1976, not the rural U.S. in 2005. Anneliese went through exorcism rituals daily for a year instead of Emily’s once (Emily refused any more because of her chat with the Virgin Mary; Anneliese had no such chat). In the real case, two exorcists and the girl’s parents were arrested (I have little legal knowledge, but even I know there’s something wrong with the movie having the priest brought in but not her guardians). All four were convicted and went to jail. I’ll just say it didn’t work out that way in the movie. Anneliese’s medical condition (she had epilepsy) was never in doubt whereas Emily’s diagnosis is just an opinion that doctors are pulling out of the air. The attorneys for the defense in Germany also did not report any nighttime supernatural occurrences, nor was a key witness shoved in front of a truck by a demon (not really surprising). Finally, the Catholic church investigated Anneliese and concluded that hers was not a case of possession. Of course, that doesn’t happen in the film.
I’ve got no problem with honest, fantasy, monster movies inventing demons to attack little girls, but this isn’t one. If you want to make a rip-off of The Exorcist, do it, and don’t pretend you’re making a documentary. A warning here to horror fans: This isn’t a horror movie. There’s no scares, although there’s a lot of sinister-sounding music. This is a courtroom procedural.
Alright, so lets forget the advertising campaign that implied this was both a fright-fest and an account of real events, as well as the text splashed on screen before the end credits that pretended everyone was real and lets the viewer know what happened to the important players. Let’s pretend this is an honest movie. What have you got? Not much. Derrickson seems to be setting up an examination of the spiritual vs. the material, or those ways of thinking, and then stacks the deck. I don’t know that a neutral movie would have been interesting (I tend to think one exposing the abuse of a girl—and therefore the abuse of many who are surrounded by superstition—would have been the way to go), but this isn’t a neutral movie. God, The Devil, and demons are a given. The real question that Derrickson asks is: Given that possession is real and demons are all around us, how can you tell in a specific case if someone is possessed or only sick. And his answer is: You really can’t, so it’s best to side with the spiritual, and therefore, religious people should be able to perform any tortures they see fit, because their hearts are in the right place.
But Derrickson doesn’t leave any room for doubt with Emily. Besides vivid flashbacks (which don’t tip the scales because they are interpretations of what happened), we are given ominous events in the present (not interesting or exciting, just ominous) that are not seen through anyone’s eyes. These represent stark reality in the world. There’s also good magic at work, which delivers to Erin a locket with her initials on it. The forces of good and evil are really wimpy in this movie, but they exist, which is all that matters. Naturally, characters who support the priest are nice while anyone opposing him is vicious and uncaring (wouldn’t the film be a bit more interesting if the prosecutor wasn’t an ass?). And Erin, who is the viewers’ guide to the proceedings, becomes, as the priest comments, a mystic.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a dimwitted film anyway you look at it, but it has absolutely nothing to offer to anyone who doesn’t accept the supernatural. For those who do, there’s not so much food for thought either, more like bubble-gum for thought. It’s not nutritious, but if you aren’t fully awake, you might think it is.