Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Rite (Mikael Håfström, 2011)

In recent years, there's been a spate of new possession films. A few have been fun, entertaining films with some seriously chilling moments (The Last Exorcism, being an example), other have been well made enough, though lacking in any good scares (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which at least took a new approach) and the rest of them have been downright terrible (Blackwater Valley Exorcism, The Possession of David O'Reilly, Exorcism: The Possession of Gail Bowers).

The Rite doesn't really fit any of those descriptions. It was relatively entertaining while I was watching it, so I can't say it was terrible. I wasn't sitting there counting the minutes until it was over, and clocking in just short of two hours. At the same time, the minute it was over, the flaws in the film were jumping to mind like a possessed virgin getting splashed with holy water. Granted, there are a few sequences in this film that actually work well. The problem is those sequences aren't connected by the kind of character development it would have taken to make the film work, and there are some narrative elements that just don't make any sense when you consider them.

The best thing this movie has going for it is Anthony Hopkins. The man can be a towering example of what is great and majestic about acting as an art form and a profession, which is nothing to thumb one's nose at. If we're going to be honest with each other though, he's made some horrible movies. He's made a few classics as well, which is why he is Sir Anthony Hopkins, and one of the most recognizable names in the world. In this film, he's unfortunately saddled with a character the script doesn't really tell the audience enough about for them to get a full sense of who he is or why he is who he is, which in a film dealing with possession and the fate of the immortal soul, is pretty important. Sir Anthony makes the best of things though, and there are definitely a few scenes where the brilliance he can summon are glimpsed. The effect of putting this caliber of actor in this role is that the small, quiet important moments outshine the scenes that should be the equivalent of gate crashing your consciousness. It's essentially emotionally backwards. There a moments in the film where I really wanted to love and respect this character, but they are immediately thrown under the proverbial narrative bus, because the film is hurrying along to it's next plot point so the audience doesn't consider the fact that some of what's being presented to them doesn't make sense in any world, even the world the film is trying to create. This film does give me hope that Anthony Hopkins has a few incredible performances left in him if he's given or takes scripts that are interesting and well written enough to allow him to be the more relaxed and extremely warm actor that he can be.

The sad thing is that it has a really strong opening. The first twenty minutes to half hour had me. It's not shocking to reflect that ninety-five percent of the films character development takes place in that time. The problem is that it's all one character, and the other characters who become central to the narrative don't show up until the film is already in a hurry to slap you with it's next plot point. There's a surprise scene in the beginning of the film that gave me some real hope that we might be about to take the kind of bumpy, uncomfortable ride I hope to get from horror films, especially supernatural horror films. Unfortunately, my good will was wasted on what more or less devolves into non-sense. There are central plot elements that either aren't explained enough to make sense in the world the film is trying to immerse us in, or worse, they're just thrown in there to keep things moving because they somehow tangentially relate to the other events in the narrative.

When the super natural is central to a film's narrative, there is a relatively fine line to walk. The writer and the film makers have to be able to develop the "rules" or the reality of the world they're creating without over explaining and getting into the kind of horrid exposition that completely kills narrative pacing. At the same time, they can't be so lazy as to just say, "it's the super natural, so of course it doesn't make sense." A writer or film maker might be able to get away with that if they specifically choose to never even allude to something resembling "rules" or a reality for the narrative that is somehow different from the one in which the audience lives in on a daily basis. Find me that film, where the writer and film makers pull it off, and I bet you've found something that is in the least interesting in it's ambition. This film seems to be completely lacking in any ambition, except possibly to get Anthony Hopkins on screen trying to out Hannibal Lecter himself for twenty minutes.

The other thing that succeeds in making this film unsuccessful, and pretty unsatisfying when reconsidered, is the lead actor. I'm not familiar with Colin O'Donoghue from anything else. That's usually not a problem for me, but in this case I didn't even have familiarity to fall back on. A million things can go wrong in the production of a film, which is why we get so many really bad movies every year. This seems to have been either a horrible case of miscasting or a director who just wasn't able to get a good performance out of his lead. Don't get me wrong, he's not terrible. There was never a point at which I sat back and marveled at the horrendous nature of the performance I was watching. But an hour into the film, I didn't really care about his character very much at all, and I wasn't really interested in what he was doing, why he was doing it or anything. Again, this could be a failure in the writing (which, I find a distinct possibility) or any number of other things, but it doesn't change the final result. The film makers spent the first twenty minutes of the movie on developing this guys character, and twenty minutes after that, I just didn't care anymore.

The film begins with him explaining to a friend (we're led to assume it's his best friend) that he's decided to join the seminary to get away from the family business. His father is a mortician, and he's old enough to be helping out these days. I can't blame him for trying to get away. The only explanation given for choosing seminary as that escape route is "In my family, you're either a priest or a mortician, and that's it." He further explains to his friend that he'll at least be able to get a four year degree, and then he can always choose not to take the vows to become a priest. Fast forward four years, and our boy is done with his undergraduate degree, and writing a letter to the equivalent of college headmaster to explain that he's not taking his vows, he lacks faith etc. Our intrepid young hero is then told there's a new program at The Vatican which is supposed to be training a new generation of exorcists, and Mr. Head Priest has always thought he'd be perfect for it, not to mention that the seminary can legally call his four year scholarship a student loan if he doesn't take his vows. And off he goes to Rome.

I think there could be some really good material in those class rooms and that training. Exactly what does The Vatican do to train an exorcist? How do they handle questions of modern psychology in relation to possession etc.? A few of these ideas get grazed, but none of them really land on the bulls eye. There could also be an entire movie of some value in understanding how Anthony Hopkins character comes to be the "unorthodox" priest our young skeptic is sent to, basically in order to cure his skepticism. "Unorthodox" in Hopkins case seems to mean "has many cats living in the courtyard outside of his living quarters, because nothing else here seems all that unorthodox as it relates to either Church teachings on exorcism and possession or films dealing with exorcism and possession. Then Alice Braga gets introduced as a third character in the film, and really, that's all there is to her. They may as well have decided to forgo giving her character a name at all and called her either "third major character" or "pretty female character meant to slightly suggest sexual tension." Then there's all the possession, exorcism, faith versus doubt stuff. It's thin. It's really, really thin. And really, this is more a religiously toned drama than a horror film. Yes, there are some of the requisite scenes of demonic possession etc, but they're not very scary and the sense of threat to the characters isn't great enough to create the sense of ever present dread the subject matter should suggest.

When it's all said and done, I can't really recommend seeing this film in theaters. If I'd have found myself with an afternoon free, and nothing to do, I'd be looking at this as a harmless distraction that filled a few hours of time. I wouldn't have been bothered by seeing this on Netflix or some other variety of rental, because at that price, it would have been worth it. It's not worth full ticket price at a theater though. This is one of those that I'm kicking myself for because I know there are a number of good films out I could have devoted that time and money to. I still haven't seen 127 Hours or The King's Speech and I can basically rely on them being well made, even if they don't quite live up to the Oscar hype. The Rite is the kind of completely vanilla film that results from either a complete lack of ambition to make something of real quality or too many cooks spoiling the broth (as so many studio films suffer from). I can see the skeleton of a good film in there, but it would have to have been thirty to forty minutes longer in order to flesh out the characters and the reality of this presentation of the super natural and it probably would have had to have a different lead.

If for some reason you feel you have to see this in theaters or you've found that if I dislike something you are almost guaranteed to enjoy it (there are reviewers out there whom I feel that way about) you can find the showings near you on Fandango. If you completely disagree with my review or you just want to be swell you can pre-order The Rite [Blu-ray] or The Rite on DVD at my Amazon store. Maybe the book from which the movie is "suggested" (and yes, the credits actually said suggested) is more interesting, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, and you can grab that from the Amazon Store as well.

If you're one of those crazy kids who doesn't like to have you're time wasted, but can still enjoy possession/exorcism films, snag a copy of any of the following:
The Last Exorcism [Blu-ray]
The Last Exorcism
The Exorcism of Emily Rose - Unrated (Special Edition),
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray].

There's also a film based on the same case that Emily Rose was, that takes an extremely different tact on the material, but is still very good: Requiem. And of course, there's the mother of all exorcism films, the one, the only, the classic: The Exorcist (Extended Director's Cut & Original Theatrical Edition) [Blu-ray], The Exorcist

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