Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
February 2011

'Rite' movie, wrong approach

Expectations of genre derail what could have been honest look into exorcism and faith

The Rite
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Mikael Håfström
Screenplay: Michael Petroni, suggested by the book by Matt Baglio
Starring: Colin O'Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga, Ciarán Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones and Marta Gastini
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 54 minutes
(out of four)

How is it that virtually every filmable horror-movie premise you can think of has had at least a half-dozen decent entries, yet when it comes to exorcism, most people can't think of more than one?

An easy answer would be to say that William Friedkin's The Exorcist looms so large that it merely overshadows every other example. An even easier answer, however, would be that there simply haven't been any good ones since 1973.

We expected The Rite to fail because of Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Exorcist III, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, Exorcist: The Beginning, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, Stigmata (I know it doesn't have quite the same ring), The Unborn and probably a dozen more movies with either of the words "haunting" or "possessed" in the title. Unless there's some awesome Japanese exorcism flick that I don't know about (and if there is, by all means, someone please tell me), that pretty much covers it.

The thing is, The Rite isn't all that bad. It's just a bit too unfocused and meandering for its own good. And its central character is such a benign presence that he can't possibly hold up against Anthony Hopkins, Rutger Hauer or even Alice Braga. The actor's name is Colin O'Donoghue and he plays Michael Kovak, a young man who basically has two choices for what he can do with his life - become a priest, or become a mortician. All the men in his family are one or the other.

Given that his father (played by Hauer) went with the latter, Michael chooses the former, enrolling in seminary school for no better reason than it pays for his four-year education. He has little if any faith in the existence of God but is willing to give the whole priest thing an honest shot.

Four years pass and his faith never really comes around. He plans on discontinuing his training and going back home before Father Matthew (Toby Jones) asks him to give exorcism school a go. After all, if it doesn't take, he still gets a couple free months in Rome, right?

During his time there he gets partnered with Father Lucas (Hopkins), who specializes in exorcisms, and meets a woman named Angelina (Braga), a journalist attending exorcism school as part of an investigative story.

Hopkins is excellent - as good an actor as he is, he goes on auto-pilot as often as not these days, but he seems committed to the role in this case - and Marta Gastini deserves praise as well for her role as a 16-year-old girl who may or may not be possessed. Certain little nuances in her performance are among the film's most chilling moments.

A glaring issue that crops up in The Rite is one of the reasons I suspect the exorcism subgenre so often fails. The film is basically confused about what it wants to do - provide a genuine examination of faith, or give us cheap genre thrills?

It's as if the mere fact that The Exorcist was a great horror film forces us to think of exorcism only in those terms. Sure, the presence of the devil may be inherently frightening, but that doesn't mean we need it to be accompanied by eerie music and jump scares. Isn't the whole idea of a person having their body literally possessed by an evil spirit threatening enough on an intellectual level?

To be fair to director Mikael Håfström and writer Michael Petroni, The Rite tries not to pander to its target audience too much. It takes Michael's struggle for faith seriously. Still, it too often falls uncomfortably into horror-movie zone, where loud banging noises on the soundtrack inform us when we're supposed to be scared. Nothing is ever allowed to get truly under our skin.

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