Monday, January 9, 2012

Fight for your Rites

There are plenty of movies out there about exorcism. In the last few years, there have been several -- "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "The Last Exorcism" and, the subject of this review, "The Rite." On a side note, for a really interesting article about this film, and specifically about the activities of exorcists in the Dakotas, read this article by Rapid City (S.D.) Journal writer Mary Garrigan.

Released in 2011, costarring Anthony Hopkins and Colin O'Donoghue and directed by Mikael Hafstrom (also directed the film adaptation of the Stephen King story "1408"), "The Rite" takes a look at the Catholic rite of exorcism. It focuses on seminary student Michael Kovak (O'Donoghue) who struggles with his faith, gets sent to the Vatican to learn to be an exorcist and meets Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins) and demon-possessed chaos ensues.

This movie has some major flaws. For one, what the box says the movie is about — Trevant's character becoming possessed after an exorcism patient dies — is only partially true. Really, this movie isn't sure what it's about. Is it about the Catholic church's insistence on teaching an ancient ritual that flies in the face of logic? Yes. Is it about a young man running from his father (for reasons we never really understand) and struggling with his doubts about Christianity and even the very existence of God himself? Yes. Is it about a journalist who wants to uncover the truth about exorcism? Yes. Is it about a pregnant girl and a little boy and a demon that's shaped like a mule?

Yep. All those things, too.

Many great movies succeed in being about too many things but leave them in the peripheral, allowing a strongly-developed center plot to shine through — "The Rite" does not. Half way through the film, T.J. commented to me, "Do you know what this movie is missing? A coherent plot line."

The true meaningful part of the film — Hopkins' possession — lasted less than 30 minutes. The rest was a slow build up for a climax that never really satisfied. "The Rite" was not good at building suspense. Some symbols and foreshadowing were too obvious, while some were never explained fully and just muddied the waters.

All that being said, there were some excellent moments. The makeup and effects during Hopkins' possession were fantastic. Anthony Hopkins is one of my favorite crazy actors, and in "The Rite" he gets to be at his craziest — transforming from a bumbling, slightly incoherent old man to a raging, thriving, spitting demon in seconds. It's a wonderful performance.

And Hafstrom brought over some tricks from "1408." The use of voice is fantastic — subtly changing tones and textures, animalistic growls pair with whispers and voice overs to add dimension and tension to the exorcism scenes and to Kovak's own personal demons. They do their job well; leaving the audience feeling doubtful over what is true.

But in the end, "The Rite" simultaneously says too much — way too much pointless back story on Kovak and his trip through seminary, including a ridiculous scene in which he gives Last Rites to a woman who has just been hit by a car — and too little. The film manages to keep its PG-13 rating by cutting away during some of the more violent scene, leaving you with a little blood splatter and mumbled dialogue to guess what actually happened.

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