I love, love, LOVE this movie. And yet, demons are not my thing. Exorcism is not my thing. Defending the Catholic church is definitely NOT my thing. (Hello, SPOTLIGHT.)
However, it comes down to this … belief IS my thing. I believe in belief. I respect the power and momentum of belief. Belief = Faith, Trust, Hope, and Optimism. Like Bret Michaels sang, “And give me something to believe in.” I’m not someone who is quick to quote the bible, but one of my favorite parables comes from Matthew 17:20 where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
Christians say their faith is the one and only true form of faith. So do Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, for that matter. I disagree. I believe many faiths around the world have merit and organized religion always goes wrong when it claims to be the only true and valid belief system. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama explains it much better than I ever could.
What does all that have to do with this movie?
The core theme of The Exorcism of Emily Rose is not God vs. Demons. It’s not Science vs. Superstition. It’s not even Church vs. State. This movie is an exploration of faith and personal choice.
Superstar defense attorney Erin Bruner (played by the glorious Laura Linney) isn’t religious and doesn’t believe in demons. She’s agnostic. She doesn’t want this case but takes it on the promise of a partnership in her firm. She is pushed to get Father Moore to accept a plea deal, then warned not to allow him to testify in open court. The archdiocese doesn’t want the details of the demonic possession or the failed exorcism made public. Yes, that’s right. A strange and very real dichotomy exists within the Catholic church—they believe in demons, they have a rite of exorcism, they train a chosen subset of priests to perform the rite, and yet, they are very reluctant to take up the fight to save tormented victims begging for help.
Father Moore took up the fight. He truly loved Emily Rose. He isn’t interested in a deal and wants Emily’s story to be heard. He warns Erin that dark forces are at play around this conflict and, “Demons exist whether you believe in them or not.”
We watch Erin form a relationship with Father Moore. She may not want to believe in demons, but she does believe in the inherent honesty and decency of her client. So she is able to believe in and argue for the importance of his faith. Not to mention Emily’s faith. Following devastating medical testimony, Erin actually presents an alternate theory that embraces the validity of Emily’s and Father Moore’s faith and the potential for an exorcism to work. I loved listening to her expert witness’s testimony. Dr. Adani is poised, scholarly, and eminently believable despite the histrionics from the prosecuting attorney objecting on grounds of “silliness.”
Aside from the drama of Emily’s horrifying struggles and the failed exorcism, the supernatural does make itself known in more subtle ways. We watch as Erin wakes at 3:00 am, checking her fire alarm and stove. It’s obvious she smells something burning. Lights fail. Locked doors swing open. It’s a little difficult to keep your bland assurance in a rational world when demons come calling in the darkest hour of the night.
We also watch Emily Rose and Father Moore endure similar torments, always at 3:00 AM.
Then there’s that moment in the courtroom when Father Moore testifies to the significance of the hour.
Three am is the demonic witching hour. It’s a way for demons to mock the Holy Trinity. It’s an inversion of three pm, the miracle hour.”
Then we get a close-up of Erin Bruner’s face. We see the dawning belief mixed with horror. I call it the “oops I crapped my pants” moment. In my opinion, it’s the best moment in that entire movie and one of the best moments ever filmed. My best friend and I watched this movie together 15 years ago and we still frequently reference this moment whenever we’re speaking about experiencing shocking or disturbing news that rocks your world.
So why does this movie continue to rock my world?
- It’s like watching a two-hour episode of Law & Order. I’m a Law & Order addict; therefore, I love this format. There actually was a Law & Order episode devoted to prosecuting a death by exorcism-ish. However, that episode was based on the Charity Miranda case which bears little or no resemblance to a modern exorcism approved by the Catholic church. Mom tried to exorcise her own daughter because she wasn’t a “good girl.” See, right there, all my reasons for a big NOPE on exorcisms. This movie is based on the Anneliese Michel case from which is much more straightforward in terms of church vs. demons in my mind.
- The acting is superb. Yes, Jennifer Carpenter is amazing as the contorted and conflicted Emily Rose. And yet, I’m much more fascinated by Laura Linney’s character. She’s a slick, intelligent, and ambitious defense attorney. Her devastation when she learns a former client has used the freedom she secured to murder again. Ouch. And let’s not forget that “oops I crapped my pants” moment.
- I believe Emily Rose (and Anneliese Michel) were victims of demonic possession, but I’m not convinced that was the only affliction at play. Why does it have to be an either/or situation? I believe the diagnosis of psychotic epileptic disorder could co-exist, perhaps even open a window for the demonic. I also believe the medication was not helping her situation. Having recently (last year) gone through the whole medical dance of “take this medicine, keep taking it despite unpleasant side effects, give it longer, keep taking it despite no real improvement.” Ugh! It was her right to stop taking the medication, it was her right to pursue an exorcism, and, ultimately, it was her right to call off the exorcism and embrace her belief in God. I loathe the idea of taking any innocent person and incarcerating them, sedating them, and forcing them to take medication against their will. That’s barbaric.
- The ending is uniquely satisfying. I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly why it’s so satisfying. Father Moore is found guilty, but at the jury’s recommendation, he’s only sentenced to time served. He’s allowed to walk out of the courtroom a free man … well, a free man who just pissed off the powers of darkness.