Written by: Michael Petroni, and Matt Baglio
Directed by: Mikael Hĺfström
Starring: Colin O‘Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga, and Rutger Hauer
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“It’s two months in Rome…what could be so bad about it?”
Anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two knows the answer to the above; whenever anyone playfully asks such rhetorical questions, they’ve unwittingly unleashed an impending doom. Throw exorcisms into the equation (when in Rome, right?), and such doom becomes downright demonic. Such is the case in The Rite, which represents a confluence of horror trends. It insists it’s inspired by a true story, which is a tactic we’ve seen used before, and its mere existence proves that there’s always room for the box office to be possessed and that The Last Exorcism was a misnomer in that sense. Toss in Anthony Hopkins and some Exorcist-inspired stylings, and you at least have the potential for one hell of a trip to…well, Hell.
Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue) is in the family business of being a mortician; that is, until he’s pressured by his father to enter seminary school. While there, he experiences a crisis of faith and decides not to take the final vows of priesthood. A tragic event interferes with these plans, and one of his mentors convinces him to travel to Rome, where the Vatican has started a new program to train exorcists. Still unconvinced by it all, Michael seeks out a local exorcist (Hopkins), who might be able to show him that the Devil is all too real.
You might be thinking that this is yet another exorcism movie, and you’d be right. In fact, I think the film itself knows its place, as Hopkins’s character at one point warns his new protégé not to expect spinning heads and pea soup. And indeed there is none of that; however, just about everything else from the possession movie playbook shows up: contorting bodies, demonic voices, vulgarity, self mutilation, etc. Coincidentally, it even borrows a bit from The Last Exorcism, as it takes sort of an objective look at the subject at times, even revealing some of the tricks of the trade. While the film’s last act does venture into some interesting territory, you’ll spend most of the time on familiar ground that’s full of the usual conflicts between science, religion, faith, and doubt.
But any good story is perhaps worth telling more than once, and the story here is told well enough. Michael is an obvious Father Karras figure who is having bouts of doubt, not only in God, but also in himself. He’s even haunted by the death of his mother (a fact that the demon uses to its advantage, of course). O’Donoghue is solid in the role, as he’s somber and brooding enough in his struggle. His character is fleshed out in a series of flashbacks and dreams that end up being important to the plot at large (one can’t help but catch a hint of Shyamalan’s Signs in this regard).
I suppose Hopkins’s Father Trevant is the Merrin of the story, except we spend a bit more time with him than with Max Von Sydow. He’s of course well-known as the unsettling Hannibal Lecter, but here, he’s a bit of a charmer in who disarms Michael (and the audience) with a wry sense of humor. His skills also bring a natural gravitas to the role that helps to make the character likeable enough. However, fret not--he gets his chance to channel Lecter a bit and deliver all the creepiness you’ve perhaps come to expect from him. Rutger Hauer is another familiar face who’s been known to creep audiences out (look no further than his turn as the title character in The Hitcher), but here he gives a more understated performance as Michael’s father. We don’t see a lot of his character, but his presence is there, and one gets the sense that we know him about as well as Michael himself does.
Director Hafstrom (who also brought us 1408) does a fine job of setting the scene and keeping things appropriately gloomy. We open with Michael preparing a young girl’s body for her funeral, and the moody imagery doesn’t let up. Everything becomes menacing, from the desolate cityscapes to the abundance of crosses that establish many shots. Other religious iconography abounds, and it’s not at all comforting--if anything, it seems to be mocking Michael. Even frogs, cats, and mules are turned into demonic forces. There are, of course, exorcisms to be found here, and they come with the standard antics. They’re intense and have plenty of jolts, but they also lack a sense of dread; they aren’t so much a moment of crisis the film builds toards (like in The Exorcist). Instead, they feel like they’re there because, well, this is an exorcism movie, and the power of Christ compels them to be there.
And that’s fine. Really, the worst I can say about The Rite is that it’s extremely derivative with little new to offer. It at least has the decency to be finely crafted and fairly briskly paced, which is more than I can say about many of the Exorcist rip-offs from the past. This one isn’t exactly an essential rite, but it’s one that fans of the material should go through at least once. Rent it!
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