Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review: The Rite

All exorcism movies made in the last 35 years have had one major thing working against them, a little flick called The Exorcist. One can’t help comparing any new exorcism movie to it, but this isn’t really a fair comparison. The first major possession/exorcism movie is as close to being a perfect horror movie as you can get. Since 1973 there have been scores of imitators, but those films that stand out from the pack have been those who offered a twist on the formula and didn’t try to directly copy Friedken’s masterpiece. The Rite started doing just that, giving us more of a character study/examination of exorcism through skeptical eyes, but in the end devolved into clichés and the kind of quick pretty ending that a movie like this deserves better than.

The Rite is very good for its first two thirds. Director Mikael Hafstrom takes full advantage of shooting in Rome, as the scenery and sets are beautiful and add an exotic and creepy atmosphere to the proceedings. The gist of the story is that Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) is a young priest in training who has doubts about his faith in general and possession in particular. He is sent to the Vatican to study to be an exorcist, expresses his doubts, and is sent to train with Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins). For the first hour of the film, the pace is slow and methodical, unfolding more in “psychological thriller” fashion than straight horror. Some very interesting issues of possession versus mental illness are raised. While the whole “priest with a crisis of faith” thing has been done many times before, most recently in The Last Exorcism, The Rite uses that trope as the jumping off point for an intriguing exploration of the validity of possession in light of modern science. It is a slow burn that builds towards…well, I’ll get into that in a minute.

With the notable exception of O’Donoghue, who is apparently another graduate of the Twilight school of non-acting, the performances are top notch. The supporting cast all play their roles effectively. Anthony Hopkins is, as always, brilliant. Until the climax, he plays the role of the grizzled exorcism veteran with surprising subtlety, given his propensity for scenery chewing. Father Trevant has a great understated wit and, unsurprisingly, owns most of the film’s best moments. Hopkins answering his cell phone mid-exorcism really cracked me up. Also a standout is Marta Gastini, who plays Rosaria, the pregnant teenage girl Father Trevant is in the process of exorcising when Kovak enters the picture. About an hour in, one of the main characters dies, leaving us wondering where the story will go from there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go anywhere good.

I’m not giving spoilers here, because it’s in the trailer, but Hopkins ends up possessed. No other priests can be reached, so Kovak and his reporter friend have to perform the exorcism. Why haven’t I mentioned the reporter, a main character, yet? It’s because her character is completely unnecessary aside from one short, lame speech to Kovak at the end. At least they avoided one cliché and didn’t get those two romantically involved. Hopkins kicks it up into hammy, over the top brilliance for the exorcism scene. The good Father appears to have been possessed by a demonic Hannibal Lecter, displaying the same quiet, snarling menace for a while before going full blown screaming demon. I couldn’t tell if “Where will it tickle you senator” or “Your mother sucks cocks in hell” was coming out of his mouth next. This great performance is marred, however, by completely unnecessary bad CGI on Hopkins face and utterly amateurish “demonic voice” sound design. Hopkins has enough presence, good enough facial expressions, and sufficient enough vocal chops that it’s completely unnecessary to make him look and sound like a monster! The Exorcist’s sound design won an Oscar. This echo chamber mediocrity probably wouldn’t get a passing grade in a high school AV course. At least they didn’t have him Linda Blair style masturbating with a crucifix. I love me some Anthony Hopkins but, um, no thanks.

While I’m all for an old school head spinning exorcism, this out of nowhere foray into pea soup territory just doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the movie. What was an intriguing, subtle thriller gives way to a climax that culminates in a “you can do it” pep talk and a moment that is so mind numbingly dumb and cliché it almost seems lifted out of a sports movie, with the devil playing the role of the opposing team. It’s a quick “happily ever after” solution that undoes everything they spent the first hour building. It is also ridiculously rushed. Father Trevant tells Kovak multiple times that an exorcism can take weeks, months, even years. The demon they chose is Ba’al who, according to demonology, is pretty high in hell's hierarchy. Yet this infernal heavy hitter is dispatched by our rookie priest in 15 minutes. The actual exorcism is so rushed that it feels tacked on at the last minute.

Oh yeah, one last thing. The demon the writers chose to go with is Ba’al, pronounced in this film as “ball.” They made a PG-13 movie, so obviously they are going after the teenage audience. We get a moment at the end with Hopkins throwing his head back and screaming “Ba’al” in the same way William Shatner screamed “Kahn!” I saw this with fellow thirty somethings, and we couldn’t resist making “possessed by ball” jokes all the way home. Do they really think teens are going to take that seriously? The filmmakers obviously didn’t think that one through.

Basically, The Rite is two thirds good. The ending isn’t so much bad, per se (aside from the lame CGI and sound), it just takes the movie in a complete u-turn from doing something a little different into complete horror movie cliché, and a not very well done one at that. The Rite is the first major horror release of 2011. We can only pray that it gets better from here. It’s not awful, but it’s not that good either. It’s worth seeing for Hopkins though. I’m gonna say this one gets one severed thumb up. Nathan says definitely check it out at the 1.99 theater, or Redbox in a couple of months, but for Christ’s sake don’t pay full price for it.

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