This muddled mess wants to be three things at once and fails at all of them. It wants to be a horror movie, a courtroom drama, and and inspiring spiritual statement, but each element detracts from the others and the end result is both overheated and cheesy, narratively weak and theologically suspect.
The framework of the story is the criminal trial of a priest. The prosecutor (Campbell Scott) says that Emily Rose died because she had an illness that should have been treated medically, but her family and their priest treated it not as illness but as possession. The defense says that medical treatment had failed and that exorcism was a legitimate approach to Emily Rose’s condition. What is clear is that both attempts to help her were unsuccessful and that the jury will have to decide who — if anyone — is responsible.
Defense attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney)is an agnostic who does not know or care whether Emily Rose was possessed. She takes the case because it means becoming a name partner — as long as she does what the archdiocese, which is paying the bills, directs. They do not want the defendant, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) to take the stand. The church leaders are hoping to downplay the question of the legitimacy of exorcism.
But Father Moore is the client, and telling Emily Rose’s story is what matters to him, much more than the verdict. Erin agrees to give him that opportunity.
We see the story unfold as Erin listens to Moore. Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) was a devout, affectionate girl whose problems began just after she entered college. She saw terrifying visions and was seized by convulsive and paralyzing spasms. The doctor at the school diagnosed her as epileptic. But she discontinued the prescribed medication and turned to her family’s priest for help instead.
Erin worries that it will be impossible to rebut the medical testimony. Father Moore warns her that dark forces are aligned against them. But there seem to be forces on their side as well. Are these coincidences or portents? Erin’s beliefs — and lack of belief — seem to be on trial as well.
There are some sincere and committed performances here, and Shohreh Aghdashloo (of The House of Sand and Fog stands out as an expert witness who suggests that the medical treatment itself may have interefered with the exorcism.
The flashbacks are standard horror movie stuff, disturbing images (a classmate’s eyes turn to pools of splling ink) and boo-surprises. The courtroom scenes are melodramatic, with too many objections by counsel and too many last-minute “but your honor, this evidence/this witness just became available!” moments, plus one development that is, even within the terms of this movie, completely over the top. But what is unforgiveably manipulative is a third-act attempt to justify this mess with an transcendent spiritual connection that fails as a matter of narrative and theology. Viewers may decide that the exorcism they need is to expunge this from their memories.
Parents should know that this is a disturbing film with graphic and grotesque images and jump-out-at-you scary surprises. There is some graphic violence include a shocking car accident. Characters drink, including drinking in response to stress. The theme may be unsettling for some viewers.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we evaluate different perspectives on the same facts — whether Emily’s symptoms are considered medical, psychological, or spiritual. They may want to talk about the way their own faith tradition would approach these issues. Should the priest or the family or Emily have done something differently? They might also want to learn more about exorcism or find out more about the German girl whose story inspired the film.
Families who appreciate this movie will also like The Exorcist (very scary and disturbing).