Rite, The (United States, 2011)January 27, 2011
It has long been my opinion that Hollywood is more fascinated by the subject of exorcism than the public in general. The Exorcist did for this horror subgenre what Jaws accomplished for sharks. Sure, there have been sequels and knock-offs, but no one has been able to improve upon (or at least equal) what William Friedkin achieved in 1973. The Rite doesn't change that but at least this movie tries something a little different. It brings a European flavor to the proceedings (unsurprising since director Mikael Håfström comes from Sweden), eschewing the overt graphic grotesqueness one often associates with exorcism movies in favor of a slower, verbal approach. There are some interesting ideas and themes in The Rite; unfortunately, an uneven tone and a disappointingly generic climax dilute them.
Colin O'Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, the son of an undertaker who decides to enter the priesthood as a means of staying out of the family business. Toward the end of his seminary training, his mentor, Father Matthew (Tony Jones), recommends him for a special program in Italy. Father Matthew thinks Michael has what's necessary to be an exorcist and Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), the priest who runs the program, agrees. But Michael is having a crisis of faith. He doesn't believe in God, the Devil, or the demons that supposedly possess the unwary and unfortunate. So Father Xavier sends Michael to spend time with Master Exorcist Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). Shadowed by a journalist (Alice Braga) seeking "the truth," Michael learns that some of Father Lucas' methods are little more than parlor tricks, but there may be darker things than are dreamt of in his philosophies.
For the first half of The Rite, the film engages in a debate between rational and supernatural explanations for seeming demonic possessions. Michael, an atheist, believes everything he sees can be explained through science and medicine. When challenged by Father Lucas, he has an answer for nearly every question, logically explaining away things that would, on the surface, seem to be proof of demons. Of course, since this is a horror movie, the deck is stacked and we know the demon will turn out to be real, but this aspect of the storyline holds some interest while it lasts.
When Baal finally makes his appearance, it's not in a cloud of fire and brimstone or with spinning heads and pea soup projectile vomit. Instead, the demon engages in a duel of wits with the would-be exorcist, attempting to undermine his faith in God and himself. The lack of a physical confrontation ramps up the level of tension. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are unable or unwilling to hold to their convictions and the battle devolves into something more typical of exorcist/horror films. This doesn't ruin the movie but it makes for a generic resolution. The Rite strikes a few too many wrong chords during its final quarter hour to be accorded the benefit of the doubt on all of them.
The level of acting is better than what one normally associates with this genre. Anthony Hopkins is not known for his discrimination in picking roles - he'll do almost anything if the price is right. Nevertheless, in The Rite, he plays things mostly straight, avoiding the kinds of over-the-top antics that characterized his portrayal of Van Helsing in Ford Coppola's Dracula. His co-star, Colin O'Donaghue, is a relative newcomer to big-budget movies, having spent the lion's share of his young career on Irish television. The supporting cast offers respected character actors Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds while rescuing Rutger Hauer from a cinematic purgatory. Alice Braga is apparently in the movie because, without her, there would be too much testosterone - not that she has much to do.
To the extent that The Rite aims to differentiate itself from The Exorcist, it does a passable job. The sense of atmosphere is as strong but the visceral horror elements are muted in favor of cerebral ones. Ultimately, however, Håfström can't quite pull off what he's trying to do, and the result is a disjointed production that betrays its ideals by falling prey to exploitative moments and genre clichés (such as the "cat scare"). Serious movie-goers are likely to dismiss this as unworthy of their attention while connoisseurs of the genre may be bored by its talkiness and put off by its lack of overt gore. The "inspired by true events" hook is a red herring since, as with any studio treatment of a fact-based story, the narrative plays fast and loose with the historical record. Still, true or not, it's refreshing to find a horror movie interested in more than slashing and gashing; it would have been more uplifting if the movie didn't feel weighted down by a sense of compromise. There's good material in The Rite, but it requires more effort than it should to uncover it.
Rite, The (United States, 2011)
Subtitles: English and Italian with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Michael Petroni, suggested by the book by Matt Baglio
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Music: Alex Heffes