[Screen It]

(2005) (Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson) (PG-13)

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Drama/Horror: A hotshot defense attorney sets out to defend a priest who's on trial for the exorcism-related death of a girl he claims was possessed by demons.
Erin Bruner (LAURA LINNEY) is a hotshot defense attorney who's a rising star in the law firm run by her boss Karl Gunderson (COLM FEORE). Her latest case and one that might make her a senior partner, however, will be her toughest test yet. Since her firm represents the Archdiocese, they've been asked to defend Father Richard Moore (TOM WILKINSON) who's incarcerated on charges of negligent homicide regarding the death of Emily Rose (JENNIFER CARPENTER).

It seems that the 19-year-old college student, her family and Father Moore believed she was possessed by demons, thus leading to the latter performing an exorcism on her. It didn't work, and having rejected all medical treatment, the girl eventually died. Despite offers of a plea bargain, Father Moore refuses to admit any guilt, instead saying that he only wants to tell Emily's story and explain what really happened.

Pitted against tough assistant district attorney Ethan Thomas (CAMPBELL SCOTT), his piles of medical evidence and his dismissal of their claims of demonic possession, Erin sets out to defend her client with the help of various witnesses. They include Erin's classmate Jason (JOSHUA CLOSE), anthropologist Dr. Adani (SHOHREH AGHDASHLOO) and medical doctor Graham Cartwright (DUNCAN FRAZER) who witnessed the attempted exorcism. As supernatural events seemingly begin to occur in her presence, Erin does what she can to prove Father Moore's innocence.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When I hear the term "exorcism," all sorts of thoughts automatically spring to mind, including what's arguably one of the best and spookiest horror films ever made, "The Exorcist." What has yet to come up is suddenly thinking of a TV episode of "Law & Order." Yet, that's exactly what some may imagine upon hearing about and/or seeing "The Exorcism of Emily Rose."

Despite the title and previews that would make one think otherwise, this film is less about horror than the law, and that might just be too scary for connoisseurs of head-spinning, pea soup and written pleas from within. What could very well be the first courtroom based horror film (at least in terms of the subject matter at hand), the effort is based on the reportedly true events regarding the attempted exorcism and related death of German teen Anneliese Michel and the subsequent trial of her priest, all back in the mid 1970s.

As adapted by writer/director Scott Derrickson (the straight to video "Hellraiser: Inferno") and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman (that picture as well as "Urban Legends: Final Cut"), the film is initially intriguing. It begins after the pivotal, titular event has already occurred and focuses on the trial of the priest accused of contributing to the girl's death as well as the lawyer who tries to make an even bigger name for herself with the high profile case.

Of course, and notwithstanding the potential boredom factor and/or the study of the intelligence of the average juror (at least in terms of the big, publicity-driven trials), time spent in the courtroom isn't exactly known for being scary. Thus, Derrickson employs the old and tired convention of alternating between the present day story and flashbacks to the alleged possession and attempted exorcism.

The result works for a while -- simply because we don't know what's occurring or might happen next -- but it eventually becomes redundant due to its repetitive structure and other various flaws. The back and forth temporal jumping prevents any sort of momentum -- scary or dramatic -- from consistently building, although it's probably more detrimental to the flashbacks than the contemporary courtroom drama.

Although most of the possession bits are a bit more intriguing due to the legal debate over whether they're real or just a psychotic break in conjunction with possible epileptic seizures, they get somewhat boring after a while. They certainly pale in comparison to the similar material in William Friedkin's 1973 masterpiece.

As far as the dramatic fireworks, well, there really aren't any and that's the film's biggest disappointment. Notwithstanding the real case, how it played out and the eventual decision (none of which I'm overly familiar with), the story is loaded with potential. It's somewhat akin to the movie "Contact" where religion and science duked it out to explain what was really occurring in that film's story.

Here, the battle is between faith/religion and science/medicine and while it goes through the motions from both sides, it's never really that engaging, exciting or convincing. It is, in essence, just a bigger budgeted version of any courtroom drama series on TV.

The filmmakers have tried to spruce things up by adding some spooky stuff to the moments out of the courtroom. They usually take place after hours when those who hear things that go bump in the night don't have the good sense to turn on the lights. Instead, they slowly walk through the dark, thus enabling the filmmakers more opportunities to give us a jolt and/or spine-tingling experience. Nevertheless, that doesn't really add anything substantive to the proceedings (and certainly doesn't seem to affect the actual courtroom maneuvering from the players during the daylight hours).

Laura Linney ("Kinsey," "Love Actually") and Tom Wilkinson ("Batman Begins," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") clearly deliver workmanlike performances, but the fire that one would expect is all but absent from them. Wilkinson's character keeps chomping at the bit to tell the poor girl's real story, but once he gets on the stand, it's all just as mediocre as the rest of the courtroom proceedings.

Jennifer Carpenter ("White Chicks," "D.E.B.S.") gets what would seem to be another potentially meaty part. Yet, beyond doing all of the possession things (minus the head-spinning, etc.), her character is barely personified and that steals a lot of thunder from all of the flashback scenes (and indirectly the contemporary ones) as we don't really have anything invested in her well-being. Campbell Scott ("Roger Dodger," "The Secret Lives of Dentists") appears as the trial's prosecutor and is decent in the role even if he's similarly lacking in any sort of outer personality.

I liked the concept behind this film, but I just wished a little more spirit was in both the creepy scenes as well as their courtroom-based counterparts. Good for a few decent scares but ultimately rather humdrum, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 25, 2005 / Posted September 9, 2005

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