Although the trailers playing repeatedly on television these days paint "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" as a nonstop horror fest, moviegoers will find a completely different tone once the lights go down.
Those going in with thoughts of 1974's "The Exorcist" may be caught off-guard. In fact, "Emily Rose" is actually a courtroom drama first, and a thriller second. While flawed in some areas, the film still succeeds in thrilling the audience and inspiring each viewer to question his or her own beliefs.
Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) is a savvy lawyer with the task of defending Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson). Father Moore has been charged with negligent homicide in the death of 19-year-old Emily Rose (a spine-chilling Jennifer Carpenter) after performing an exorcism on her.
"Emily Rose" is actually a sensationalized account of the events surrounding Anneliese Michel, a German college student who struggled for almost a decade before dying during exorcism rituals in the summer of 1976. As a result of her death, Michel's parents and the priests who performed the exorcism were put on trial for manslaughter.
Most of the film is told inside the courtroom as Bruner spars with prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott). At the center of the battle are the conflicting theories regarding Emily's untimely death. Was she really possessed by the devil or was she merely a victim of epilepsy and other psychological diseases? While some of the courtroom scenes play out like a glorified episode of "Law & Order," the format still serves as a logical and effective way to facilitate this spiritual debate.
Throughout the trial, Emily Rose's story is told largely through sporadic flashbacks, where we see her point of view as her health begins to deteriorate. The flashbacks are nothing if not chilling, and there are plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat moments to satisfy viewers. The real chills, however, come from the uncertainty of what really happened to Emily Rose and the film is smart enough to leave it up for interpretation.
In that vein, Linney gives an exceptional performance as Bruner. In many ways, she serves as an extension of the audience's uncertainty. Bruner is a self-proclaimed agnostic, yet she can't seem to shake the fact that what happened to Emily Rose may have been supernatural in nature. Throughout the movie, she struggles with her own convictions along with the viewer. Linney was nominated for an Oscar last year for "Kinsey" and, while this isn't an Oscar-caliber role, the film is certainly a nice addition to her strong body of work.
Wilkinson, after great supporting turns in 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and this summer's "Batman Begins," gives another strong performance as Father Moore, but the same can't be said of Campbell Scott. His single-layer performance as prosecutor Ethan Thomas turned the character into more of a crybaby than a worthy adversary for Linny's Bruner.
"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is easily the best work thus far for writer/director Scott Derrickson, whose credits include "Urban Legends: Final Cut" and "Hellraiser: Inferno." While portions of the dialogue often seemed a bit contrived, they didn't hinder the story enough to be anything but a footnote. It is also a testament to Derrickson that he did not take the easy way out by having to rely on big-budget special effects and cheap scares. By taking a chance and presenting the story of Emily Rose as a courtroom drama, he has created an original and thought-provoking film instead of a generic and clichéd horror flick.