While Emily Rose is less The Exorcist and more “Law and Order: Catholicism,” a smart script willing to explore a metaphysical subject evolves into a courtroom drama about faith, science, belief, and choice.
Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) is an up-and-coming trial lawyer given a fresh opportunity to further her career. A priest named Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is being charged with the willful neglect of a young woman named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) under his care, specifically that Moore encouraged Emily to stop taking the medication of modern science and instead embrace her faith (and possibly death) by way of an exorcism.
The advertising for Emily Rose is a bit misleading (no… really!) and intentionally capitalizes on groundwork laid back in 1973. What the film truly is, however, is an extended courtroom drama not unlike Oh, God!, where faith itself is put on the stand and challenged. This is completely the opposite argument presented at the end of Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character found her disbelief in a supreme being grounds for being overlooked; Emily Rose asks everyone to consider choice by way of faith a rational decision, even if it could result in death.
Special effects are reserved to the retellings and flashbacks recounted by various witnesses, giving several different and often fantastic accounts of the same scenes. This clever tool gives the filmmakers an added bonus: no one has to ‘buy’ the special effects because we, the audience, aren’t actually seeing them live, just a visualization of someone’s description. Of course, these are also the same scenes strewn throughout the trailer to intentionally sell Emily Rose as a horror flick, but the PG-13 buts it firmly in the same gore category as the cleverly-crafted remake of The Ring.
Laura Linney isn’t hard to accept as a single lawyer on a collision course with forgotten Sunday school sermons, but the scenes where ‘evil’ is depicted as a menacing force that’s watching the trial with great interest, Linney isn’t afraid to let a little terror in as she begins to question what she considers fact. Tom Wilkinson is completely believable as a Catholic priest on a mission even if those above him fear a fanatic in their midst. Jennifer Carpenter as the title character really has too little screen time to assess, but since she’s essentially the body and the means to an end, it’s all she really has to do.
Emily Rose does eventually stumble over a few genre conventions, such as inexplicably bad driving/bad timing (complete with a hugely dangling loose end) and more than a bit of melodrama on the part of a prosecutor who’s supposed to be a Bible-thumper himself. It’s just a wee bit too much to buy to keep eyeballs from rolling into heads, but such things are also expected, and in neither case did anyone find a more compelling way to convey the ideas without stooping to the traditional loud bang/cheap scare. Fortunately, the script doesn’t lose focus even when the film does, giving a satisfactory conclusion in line with what the film is really about rather than just a happy ending, giving new meaning to the phrase, “The devil is in the details.”
(a three skull recommendation out of four)