Review: Håfström's 'The Rite' Offers Nothing New to Exorcism Films
by Jeremy Kirk
January 30, 2011
You've never seen an exorcist movie, right? No? Good, because that's what the people behind The Rite are counting on. It's a film about demonic possession, but, beyond that, it aspires to absolutely nothing, resting on the laurels established by a dozen movies before it and never embracing any sense of genuine terror. It helps that Anthony Hopkins takes the lead. He offers up some sort of pedigree to the overall proceedings even if his choice as of late haven't been all that inspiring, but not even that can save the film from moving along like a vengeful spirit that's been cooled by the calculated placement of so much holy water.
If it attempts anything beyond being a standard exorcism film, it's in the "based on true events" department. That's something we've seen before in films about exorcisms. You might be noticing a trend here. Scripted by Michael Petroni and directed by Mikael Hafstrom, The Rite is about a young American priest played by Colin O'Donoghue. Having lost the faith he once had within himself, he is coerced into attending a school in The Vatican that will teach him the ways of exorcism. There, he meets Father Lucas, played by Hopkins, who has carried out hundreds of exorcisms and believes the power of Satan is still alive, well, and tormenting the innocent at a very physical level.
Petroni's screenplay moves like it's been hobbled, like it's been weighed down by the countless exorcism films, films that genuinely do work, that precede it. There is hardly anything new to be had here even when the events turn from people talking about exorcisms to people actually performing them. By then, it just becomes a checklist of commonality. Young girls thrashing about and contorting their bodies. Sound effects to create guttural growls that billow up from deep within one of the possessed. Cats that leap against windows. That's right, folks. They throw in the old "cat flies in from out of nowhere" scare with accompanying musical sting to make you really jump out of your seat.
It's not that there aren't any moments of tension built in the film. Hafstrom's direction is adequate, nothing like we've seen from him before in horror films before. See 1408 for reference. There are a number of dream sequences involving our young protagonist and his funeral director father played by the underutilized Rutger Hauer. These dream sequences, as commonplace as they might be, actually offer some instances of finely met tone. The imagery of hoof prints in the snow or a shadowy figure moving behind a lit window provide atmosphere, but these images are fleeting and rarely register beyond a belief of what could have been. The exorcism scenes are aided by obvious CG, particularly in the later moments of the film, and, though they are a necessity (it is about exorcisms, mind you), they feel as such. It's almost as if the exorcism sequences are getting in the way of something else the writer wanted to convey. What that message is is anyone's guess.
All the while we have the young priest and the battle with his faith. He is reluctant to believe, almost stubborn about it to the point of annoyance. It's aggravating watching a film where you know something supernatural is going on. You've seen these films. You know how they are going to turn out. But the bullheadedness of the lead character is neither dramatic nor tense. The clues are slapping him dead in the face, and he continues to refuse the true nature of what is going on. It isn't long before you move from aggravation to apathy. Let the Devil win at that point. Maybe the horns in the guys face will make him finally open his eyes.
It's a problem in Petroni's script, but it's also hindered by the drab performance O'Donoghue delivers. His mannerisms are just as banal as the screenplay itself, so maybe it's a perfect marriage. Either of those two problems may have helped the overall film immensely had there been any real spice given to them. As they each are, the mixture broods contempt in the audience. It all ends up feeling as stagnant as a bottle of holy water that's been sitting around for 35 years.
And then we have Hopkins, the veteran, the one who may appear to lend some credence to a horror film. You know. Like he did with The Wolfman. With The Rite, he's required to run a range. It's not so much a range of emotions but a range of character. He's the wise old man who cracks quips to the young priest near the beginning. By the film's last act, he's changed into something different. It allows Hopkins to really turn up the energy, but, by then, it's really a moot point.
What might have been an interesting story about The Vatican training young priests to be exorcists or an engaging character study of one such priest's lack of faith amidst the ongoing "battle" between good and evil never fully forms. The Rite never pushes itself, never even seems like it wants to be anything more than the standard we've all seen before. It's a stale offering of a horror film that treats its audience as if its the first of its kind. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. It's a far greater trick for the makers of The Rite to convince the world The Exorcist didn't exist. It's not even a trick they feel worthy of attempting.
Jeremy's Rating: 3 out of 10