JANUARY 28, 2011
I'm not sure if the trailer for The Rite is spoiling too much or doing a good job of preparing you for the film's biggest weakness. If you haven't seen the trailer yet, you'll probably kind of hate the 3rd act, because it starts very abruptly and isn't nearly as interesting as the film that came before it. But in my case, once I figured out that the trailer was selling that 3rd act and not the actual movie, I was able to accept its flaws a bit easier, using the goodwill that the better-than-expected first hour or so of the film to ease the disappointment.
(This review assumes you've also seen the trailer. If not, I'll just say that it's a good drama that unfortunately bows to horror movie trappings and advise you to stop reading.)
Of course all exorcism films post 1973 will get compared to The Exorcist - it's inescapable. While some slashers can escape the shadow of Halloween and succeed on their own terms, William Friedkin's film is just too big of a landmark (I recently learned that when inflation is factored in, it's actually one of the top 20 highest grossing films of all time). The reason being, there hasn't really been another classic exorcism movie to share some of the glory, the way slashers like Scream and Nightmare On Elm Street have helped ease Halloween of its "burden". Luckily, The Rite actually spends most of its time with its exorcists, instead of focusing on the possessed girl.
And thus while there are some unfortunate similarities - our guy also boxes, deals with the recent death of a parent, and, of course, is having a crisis of faith - it definitely doesn't feel like an Exorcist retread for its first hour or so. You know when Karras and Merrin take a break and discuss faith? That sort of conflict forms the basis of the whole movie for a while. Our young Father Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue, who looks like Eddie Cahill and Jake Gylenhaal combined into one dude. Enjoy being one of People's 50 Most Beautiful next year, sir) is the one with a crisis of faith, but it's not like he lost it - he never really had a strong one, having used the priesthood as a means of escape from his father, a mortician.
Of course, that means Hopkins is in the Merrin role, and until that third act, he's the best he's been in years. He plays the role as sort of playful but also world-weary, giving one of his liveliest performances since... Christ, I can't even remember. At any rate, he makes convincing arguments to Kovak without ever talking down to him or getting preachy, even when his own beliefs get challenged. Their scenes together are often quite engrossing, and I liked that the obligatory possessed girl was just a tool to propel Kovak's development along - her story is never really the focus. So apart from the occasional creepy soundtrack choice and her brief outbursts, the movie is more like a drama for a while, and a good one at that.
But then, the third act. As the trailer suggests, Hopkins becomes possessed and it's up to the "new guy" to save him. It's not a complete misfire - Hopkins chews some scenery, the FX are still kept to a minimum, and Mikael Håfström retains his refreshingly old-school approach to the direction - no shaki-cams or rapid editing or any of that crap. But it's just the same old type of exorcism scene we've seen a bunch of times - Hopkins uses different voices, taunts Kovak with personal knowledge he shouldn't have been privy to, etc. It's only the lack of not knowing the outcome (which did somewhat surprise me) and the aforementioned lack of bullshit that keeps it afloat - if Håfström had tossed in a CGI swirl of black matter to represent the demon or devil, the movie would have lost me completely here. It's like having a really great and unique meal and then they bring you Oreos for dessert.
The movie also abandons a lot of its terrific supporting cast, particularly Ciarán Hinds, who is supposedly an old friend of Hopkins' character but the two never share a scene. And on the other side of the coin, there are too many scenes with Alice Braga, a journalist who Kovak is interested in but of course, he's a priest and she's not an altar b- OK I won't go there but you know what I mean - there's no chance of them hooking up, and she doesn't really add much to the proceedings beyond keeping it from being a sausage fest. Had they written her character out and given more time to Hinds (or even Toby Jones as the priest who sends Kovak to Rome to meet Hinds, who sends him to meet Hopkins... lot of "I want you to see an old friend of mine..." in this movie). I think the movie would be even stronger.
I was surprised to learn that the film was written by Michael Petroni, who was responsible for the silly Sarah Michelle Gellar movie Possession, which also dealt with believing in something without proof, albeit in matters of the heart instead of religion. He also adapted Queen of the Damned, which is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. But to be fair, he was also the creator of Miracles, a short-lived drama with Skeet Ulrich that I quite enjoyed, sort of a religious-tinged X-Files type show. Dude has the very definition of a checkered resume. His script has some great lines (loved Hopkins' "translation" of Kovak's first line of dialogue to the possessed girl), and he draws his characters well - he did good work here. But I'm curious if the Hinds/Jones characters had more to do in the script (Jones is in the States so his absence makes sense, but Hinds literally just sort of exits the movie at one point). Also, it's based on a book by Matt Baglio; if I had time to read I'd go pick it up tomorrow (and I still might, but I know it will sit unread forever).
Speaking of the book, I had to laugh at the nearly back to back conflicting statements in the end credits - first it tells us what the surviving characters are currently doing, and then after the cast crawl, the "this is fiction and any similarity to real persons..." disclaimer pops up. Usually this is at the very end of a title sequence (that way if there's a typo, no one catches it), so the fact that they moved it up practically to the BEGINNING is a pretty good indicator that none of this nonsense is real. I did like, however, that they tied in the Icelandic volcano eruption that killed the travel industry for a while, setting the film in a very recent reality that the other modern touches (Kovak's roommates play Gears of War at one point) didn't really provide.
In a way it's sort of a shame that the film is rated PG-13 instead of R. Not because it lacks violence or any true vulgarities when the demon is being "vulgar", but because it will attract a teen audience that likely won't appreciate the more character-based approach that the film takes (indeed, my screening had some walkouts), and worse, possibly keep adults away because they might THINK it's a movie for teens. Rest assured, it's not as hokey and cliched as the trailer suggests, and while not perfect, is laudable for being the first major horror release in some time that had a touch of class and maturity. It might not be a home run like Warner's other recent big-screen horror films (Orphan, Splice, and the "should have been big-screen" Trick R Treat), but it's a solid triple. Hope some of you folks enjoy it.
What say you?