The Exorcist has a lot to answer for. Ever since a little girl’s head spun around spouting pea soup like a lawn sprinkler, it has become the touchstone for all tales of demonic possession over the last four decades. In addition to the two sequels it spawned, it also holds a record for its two prequels (The Exorcist – The Beginning and Dominion – The Exorcist Prequel) being complete remakes of each other starring the same actor. There have been parodies (Leslie Nielsen in Repossessed), and last year’s mockumentary The Last Exorcism. The Exorcism of Emily Rose seemed to mirror many of the themes of The Exorcist, but all of these films have a commonality. The idea that there is a battle being waged between the celestial forces of good and the minions of hell is one as old as religion, and each of these films sets the human body as the battleground.
Mikael Håfström’s The Rite follows this tradition. Michael Kovac (Colin O’Donoghue) is young trainee priest in the midst of a crisis of faith. Rather than follow in the footsteps of his mortician father (Rutger Hauer, Hobo with a Shotgun), Michael has undertaken four years of training in a seminary to become a priest. When he decides to tell his superiors that he is leaving, he is sent for a bit of a Catholic priest boot camp at the Vatican and taught all about demonic possession and exorcism. Still a skeptic, Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1) directs Michael to the eccentric Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins, The City of Your Final Destination) for some hands-on experience.
Didn’t Anthony Hopkins retire? There doesn’t seem to have been much pause in the works of Sir Tony, but what he has made up for in quantity he has lacked in quality. After a lamentable appearance in The Wolfman, and a spot in Woody Allen’s forgettable You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Hopkins continues to have no sense of shame as he gets set to don celestial armour as the god of thunder’s dad Odin in the forthcoming Thor. We may never know exactly where it all went wrong for Hopkins, but ever since The Silence of the Lambs (or more accurately, Hannibal and Red Dragon), the refined acting we know from The Remains of the Day has been replaced with wide-eyed mugging and lip-smacking insanity. It’s actually quite wonderful to watch, as a revered Oscar-winning actor throws caution and convention to the wind and gives a balmy performance that he is clearly having a lot of fun with. At least somebody is having fun, as everybody else seems to be going through the motions and plodding through this fairly standard supernatural thriller. Colin O’Donoghue is fairly new to the big screen, and while he provides a fairly accessible and likeable persona to guide the audience through the familiar turf, his character is far from rounded and really only has two modes: emotionally crippled skeptic and soldier of god.
The Rite is really three movies: the crisis of faith film, the supernatural scares film and the film that is blatantly ripping off The Exorcist. For the last part, the ‘based on a true story’ title card seems to be a licence for every film to borrow liberally from William Friedkin’s classic, or to throw logic out the window in favour of cheap scares. The first part of the film, in which Kovacs explores his own faith and the nature of the relationship with his father, is actually a captivating story. Indeed, it almost seems as though this is the movie that they wanted to tell until someone chickened out and declared “We better throw in a demon mule if this thing is going to work”. Once the supernatural is introduced, and the film completely shifts gears into b-movie territory, the film relies on cheap scares, Lynchian dream sequences and nonsensical non sequiturs to keep the audience on its toes. When Michael Patroni’s script finishes playing around the edges, we finally get the old-school exorcisms that we were promised on the back of the box. Earlier in the film, Hopkins’ character quips “What were you expecting? Spinning heads and pea soup?”. By the time the film reaches its familiar finale, these may have actually lifted The Rite above the run-of-the-mill thrills we get here.
Charting the career path of Academy Award winners after they achieve the ultimate acting accolade can prove fascinating, with few post-Oscar resumes retaining the sheen of such acclaim. Halle Berry’s nosedive from Monster’s Ball to Catwoman is often espoused as a telling recent example, as is Gwyneth Paltrow’s shift from Shakespeare In Love to Shallow Hal, Cuba Gooding Jr’s downward spiral from Jerry Maguire to Snow Dogs, and much of Kevin Spacey’s work after American Beauty. Indeed, it has been posited for some time that performers find it difficult to recover from the heights of the fabled statuette, with Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Robin Williams and Jamie Foxx squandering opportunities, and Patty Duke, Louise Fletcher, F. Murray Abraham and Louis Gossett Jr. simply unable to find fitting roles. For the majority of the twenty years since Anthony Hopkins lauded portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs, the Welsh thespian has managed to avoid being lumped in with such company (aided by the likes of Shadowlands, Nixon and Amistad); however his efforts of late have thrust him into post-Oscar career suicide territory, as typified by the abysmal exorcism offering The Rite.
Taking top billing but relinquishing the lead role to relative newcomer Colin O’Donoghue (in only his third film role after 24/7 and Wild Decembers), it is to Hopkins’ credit that he remains the best thing about Mikael Håfström’s supernatural horror feature. Whilst obviously acting in an effort below his considerable talents, he at least has the appearance of enjoying himself throughout the movie, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast (including the unnecessary inclusion of Predators‘ Alice Braga and utter waste of Creation‘s Toby Jones), or even the audience. Indeed, Hopkins’ theatrics aside, the film consists of little other than overt religious symbolism and clichéd coincidences, mortuary montages and emotive expressions, and an unconvincing back story combined with an overwhelming lack of anything of interest. An early attempt at exploring the concept of faith versus science is quickly passed over in favour of a demonic possession 101 approach, with the remainder of the feature devoid of substance. Even preceded by the whispered phrase “don’t be afraid”, 1408 helmer Håfström’s film fails to elicit any genuine scares or shocks out of the “inspired by true events” premise that also cites Matt Baglio’s “The Rite: The Making Of A Modern Exorcist” as an inspiration. An exorcism effort far worse than the contrived content of The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, The Rite is possessed by a complete absence of quality.
The Reel Bits: For a film about casting demonic spirits from the mortal coil, the little audiences will care for the supernatural elements of the feature is striking. Instead, viewers of Mikael Håfström’s derivative two-hour effort will be concerned with the removal of a different kind of evil, with simply exorcising the entire movie from their minds likely to be the highest priority.
The Rite was released on March 10, 2011 in Australia by Roadshow Films.