The Exorcism of Emily Rose

(Scott Derrickson, USA, 2005)


We hardly need the show-stopping courtroom speech by Erin (Laura Linney) in defence of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) to grasp the point of Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose: from the word go, the film relentlessly opposes the rigid rationality of law and science to the ethereal realm of faith in other-worldly forces.

Moore is accused of the negligent homicide of Emily (Jennifer Carpenter), a teenage girl wracked by visions and seizures. The prosecution describes her condition as a combination of epilepsy and psychosis, and argues that the correct dosage of pills could have saved her. But Father knows best: in the midst of his dramatic and unsuccessful attempt to exorcise Emily, he learns that she houses Lucifer, Judas, Cain and Nero, among other evil spirits.

The script by Derrickson and his regular collaborator Paul Harris Boardman is a flimsily constructed affair, hinging on Erin’s "crisis of conscience" as she moves from a reliance on "facts" to an openness to (as she calls them) "possibilities". As the trial grinds on, Church officials look on disapprovingly, and Moore sits in prison begging for "Emily’s story to be told".

But which story, exactly? The phrase "based on a true story" placed at the beginning of a current film seems to indicate an ever-expanding distance between the initial facts and their screen fictionalisation. In this case, "Emily Rose" was originally Anneliese Michel, a girl in Germany who died in 1976. (It is almost like inhabiting a surreal, parallel universe to read ads that proclaim: "The Catholic Church recognised a case of demonic possession – her name was Emily Rose!" – not to mention the bizarre titles in the final credits spinning the bull about the lawyer co-writing a book that inspired this film.)

In reality there were many exorcisms (not just one) performed on Michel, and forty audio recordings made of these sessions (not just one). One particularly uncomfortable historical detail which this film avoids is that a much-discussed factor in the original case was the world-wide effect of William Friedkin‘s popular classic The Exorcist (1973): in the wake of its success, the number of claimed "demonic possessions" rose rapidly.

Derrickson’s film has been criticised for hiding a suspect "message" – that small-town girls who head to the big smoke for a university education deserve all the trouble they find. This interpretation is nonsense, for the simple reason that the script attaches as little significance to Emily’s education as to any other aspect of her character or experience. She is, to all intents and purposes, a blank slate, ripe for possession.

In fact, one ends up longing for a hint of any kind of "hidden message" in this film, whether conservative or progressive. Derrickson refuses to trade in any metaphor, allusion or allegory, sticking doggedly to the rationality vs. spirituality theme. In that sense, his film is the anti-Exorcist because Friedkin, risking total incoherence, made sure his bad-girl figure evoked every hot-button social problem of the ’70s: drug addiction, women’s liberation, out-of-control children in dysfunctional families, the protest movement against the Vietnam war. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, by contrast, is bereft of social or historical context.

The film tries hard, maybe too hard, not to seem like just another horror movie – despite, or perhaps because of, Derrickson’s past association with the genre (he made Hellraiser: Inferno [2000]). But the irony is that its best scenes are standard horror fare: hallucinations, apparitions, displays of Emily’s demonic powers. The effectiveness of these scenes is due not only to Derrickson’s evident skill as a director but also to Carpenter, daughter of horror maestro John Carpenter.

This is a young actor to watch. She emulates Sissy Spacek’s immortal performance in Carrie (1976), contorting her limbs (aided by very few special effects) to convey a wide range of states: abjection, ecstasy, fear, evil glee. While the film keeps shutting down the range of its possible readings, it is Carpenter’s extraordinary body language that keeps re-opening the case of Anneliese Michel in all its tantalising ambiguity.

© Adrian Martin October 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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