Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter, "White Chicks") is a young, naive girl, eagerly heading off to college. Upon arrival, Emily is seemingly attacked by demonic forces, which leave her on the brink of sanity. After her mysterious death from a botched exorcism, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is put on trail of her demise, leaving exasperated defender Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) at a loss as to how to approach the case. As Erin probes deeper into Emily's alleged supernatural behavior, she begins to feel evil forces are following her, and puts her job and reputation at stake as she moves forward with her controversial defense that Emily was not mentally ill, but possessed by a demon.
The marketing of "Emily Rose" (IMDb listing) shows frightening images of a young girl violently possessed, a sweaty priest battling thunderous malevolent forces, and an inquisitive woman persistently trying to find out who Emily Rose was and what happened to her. Unfortunately, this is not the film you get with "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." A poorly constructed, dry-as-toast courtroom tale of suspected possession, "Rose" is sadly more "Exorcist II" than "Exorcist."
It's a little unfair to compare the B-grade hysterics of "Rose" with the 1973 horror classic but, with the opening moments of "Rose" detailing an innocent young female slowly taken over by evil, the picture is begging for it. Where "Exorcist" had a sturdy, almost epic narrative spine of good vs. evil, "Rose" lounges around this idea of conflict, casually cherry-picking ideas when it is badly in need of story or scares. Director Scott Derrickson (the straight-to-video "Hellraiser: Inferno") isn't nearly as crafty a filmmaker as this story requires, and his constipated, cliched vision for Emily's hell results in a motion picture that alternates between infuriating and deathly boring.
First and foremost of the problems that plague "Rose" is that the audience never really understands the title character. Emily Rose is presented as a small-town boob, eager to expand her horizons at college ... and that's it. From there out, it's a collage of demonic voices, random bug eating, and flopping around for the rest of the movie. Other characters discuss the sunnier Emily between her possessions, but we never see that. How come? Because those moments wouldn't give Derrickson much to do. Already saddled with a courtroom plot, portraying Emily as a human being would only lend critical compassion to the picture, along with some clarity to the cloudy brain disorder vs. actual possession subplot the film occasionally pays attention to. Apparently, that type of complexity is not what Derrickson wants for his film.
Though based on a true story, "Emily Rose" opts for fantasy at all opportunities. Derrickson is making a weird hybrid between "The Practice" and "The X-Files," and the two genres never quite tie together. Noticing this, Derrickson tries to nudge the fantastical moments of the picture over the dramatic ones, assisted by one of the loudest and most obnoxious sound designs I've heard in recent memory. Seriously, bring earplugs. The director also tries to jolt the audience whenever he can, even if the overall film isn't truly horror. Using slamming doors, an overanxious score by Christopher Young, ominous alarm clocks, crazed cats, and the most ludicrous car accident seen on screen this year, Derrickson is shameless in trying to cheaply spook people. The production even tries to shoehorn in a baffling suspense subplot for Erin by having her lukewarmly terrorized by unseen demons, adding more elements of horror to please those baffled by all the courtroom material after buying a ticket to what they thought was an exercise in terror.
Also distressing is the level of talent wasted in "Rose." Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, and Campbell Scott (as the D.A.) are all fiercely talented performers, and they give "Rose" a good deal of competency simply by committing to the story. The feeling that permeates the film is that they were suckered into the production by the promise of the "true story" angle, and then hung out to dry once Derrickson was left alone with the grade-school possession sequences (they look like Ozzy Osbourne music videos). And poor Jennifer Carpenter; left playing a shell of a person, the actress gives the film her all with various incarnations of screaming and tossing herself across rooms. It's an extremely physical part that Carpenter captures well, but her role lacks a much-needed life outside of the possession.
The epilogue of the film reminds the viewer of the factual basis for the "Exorcism of Emily Rose," but I don't buy it. By this point Derrickson has sent the film through such an obstacle course of mediocrity, that it ends up annihilating whatever awe and reality this tale once held.
Filmfodder Grade: D+