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This is really happening: Carpenter in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

A Case for Evil
By Ann Morrow

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Directed by Scott Derrickson

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a thoughtfully spooky film that revolves around an exorcism. And so it has that similarity to The Exorcist. But Emily Rose, which is based on a true story that occurred in Germany 30 years ago, is very much its own film, subdued and chilling rather than horrifying, and grounded in reality for greater lengths than could reasonably be expected. In it, Emily (Jennifer Carpenter), a studious Midwestern farm girl, goes off to a university and is possessed by a demon in her dorm room. At least, that’s what she thinks is happening. And so do her pious, poorly educated parents, and their parish priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson). The university doctor diagnoses her with a rare form of epilepsy and puts her on antipsychotic medication. It doesn’t work, and Emily’s violent seizures and terrifying paranoia—she sees ordinary people dissolve into ghouls—become life-threatening.

Her limbs contort, and the pendulum swings: After too many years of graphic gore and slice-and-dice editing, here is a movie (by little-known writer-director Scott Derrickson) that produces shiver after shiver with such conventional virtues as pacing (the opening scene casts a lasting pall), motivation, and cinematography (by Tom Stern) that pays attention to composition, mood, and setting. One of Stern’s most unnerving flourishes is the rolling eye of a panicked horse; one of his most haunting images is of a windswept tree. And there are reasons why a film about demons was able to attract a prestige cast that includes Campbell Scott, one of the most discriminating talents around. Scott plays a prosecuting attorney who is chosen for his reputation as a devout Catholic. While Emily’s possession and death are told in intensely atmospheric flashbacks, the story’s many ramifications are invoked in the courtroom.

Father Moore, who conducted the exorcism, is charged with negligent homicide. His defense attorney is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), a rising star at a powerhouse law firm. (In a moment of dry humor, Moore asks her if she took his case for the celebrity. “No,” she says. “To make senior partner.”) Erin has been ordered by her superior (Colm Feore) not to put the priest on the stand. But Moore is willing to lose his case in order to tell Emily’s story, and in the (weirdly moving) end, we find out why. Before that, though, the trial will pit science against faith (the bewitching Shohreh Aghdashloo makes a brief appearance as an anthropologist), regard blind faith in pharmacology in the same light as religious zealotry, and take objective notice of the loneliness of Erin’s work-hard, drink-hard ambition. The most blood-freezing moment comes when a medical expert for the prosecution says with conviction that he would’ve given Emily electroshock therapy against her will.

Both Linney and Scott are enjoyably canny at exposing the acting skills of their respective lawyers, Wilkinson is quietly affecting as a simple but determined man of God, and Carpenter, as the gangly, cat-eyed Emily, is a powerful, even disturbing, physical presence. Occasionally, the film is too conventional: A crucial character is conveniently dispatched, and the revelation about Emily’s divinity classes shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

But then the pendulum swings again, and what began as the tale of a soul possessed turns out to be a testament to self-determination.

Cryin’-Out-Loud Time

An Unfinished Life

Directed by Lasse Hallström

Try as she might, Jennifer Lopez simply cannot convincingly depict Middle America. The lamentable An Unfinished Life gives her all the trappings, from a Scandinavian name to a wardrobe composed of Frye boots, Levis and low-cut peasant blouses to a job slinging hash. It offers her countless opportunities to say words like “fergit”; nevertheless, her very presence screams Bronx. The funny thing is, her dreadful miscasting is, in the scheme of the awfulness that is this movie, almost unnoticeable. Almost.

Based on a novel by Mark Spragg, and adapted for the screen by the author and his wife Virginia Korus Sprague, An Unfinished Life dwells in a world of loss and survivor guilt. And grizzly bears. Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) is the grieving rancher who blames daughter-in-law Jean for the death of his son, in a car accident, 12 years prior. He also grieves because he’s a recovering alcoholic, his wife left him, and his best friend and former ranchhand Mitch (Morgan Freeman) got mauled by a grizzly one morning when Einar was too drunk to help. One would expect the theft of a pickup truck to round out the litany of woes that has befallen Gilkyson, but alas, this is a Lasse Hallström movie and not a country song.

Einar’s days are spent playing nursemaid to Mitch, who was left a near-cripple—which is not nearly half as bad as the filmmakers’ plastering Freeman with scars that look more like the rubberized vomit tricksters we used to buy at Spencer’s. The routine is interrupted by the abrupt return of Jean and the granddaughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), whom he never knew existed. Just as predictable as the fact that Jean’s abusive ex, Gary (Damian Lewis), will soon make an appearance are such things as: Einar developing warm feelings for Griff; Griff’s blossoming under her grandpa’s and Mitch’s tutelage; and Mitch’s never-ending supply of folksy witticisms and saintly patience.

While guns make an appearance, and Einar has been shown to be no slouch with his fists, the movie is excruciatingly bereft of the kind of action that might give it a modern-day revenge-western motif. Hallström is more interested in sentiment, not action, so that when Einar and sheriff Crane (Josh Lucas) run Gary out of town, it’s a surprising, and unbelievable, soft rush. Mitch makes a big deal about the need to release the grizzly that mauled him, and we’re supposed to gather from this some greater message about repression and freedom—but given Gary’s reprieve, we have to wonder if his sorry self isn’t, like the bear, a misunderstood soul. Such is the confusion that results from the Spragg’s and Hallström’s mishmash of psychobabble and sentiment.

The most appalling contribution to An Unfinished Life, as stated earlier, is not J. Lo, but Redford, who appears as stuffed and lifeless as a taxidermied animal. What happened to the gleam in the eye, the innate intelligence that suffused his greatest performances? Were these, like his good looks, victim to too much sun and bad plastic surgery? While he can still toss off an amusing one-liner, he’s simply got no presence, no command of the screen. While it’d be easy to blame this stinker of a movie as the underlying reason, it seems to go deeper. The only solution is to go home and pop in that copy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in order to find the world, and our beloved actors, as we’d like them to be.

—Laura Leon

A Matter of Time

The Man

Directed by Les Mayfield

Now, dear reader, you’re going to get a brief peek behind the scenes with the critic. Excited? This is an insider’s view of what goes into the “movie review process.”

How, you may be wondering, is a movie like The Man chosen as a review subject? It’s a matter of priorities. This week, the two most likely new films of interest to readers were, well, the movies critiqued in the reviews you just finished reading. That left a couple of movies, frankly, that were of lesser interest. (Translation: The film is likely either to be a stinker or not going to be around in theaters long enough for the review to be of any service.) And how does one choose between films of “lesser interest”?

In this case, running time: The Man is only 83 minutes long. Unfortunately, the audience feels every one of those 83 long minutes.

The whole mess is a shame, though, because the idea of pairing Eugene Levy with Samuel L. Jackson is a good one. Not because we need another Hollywood buddy flick—God knows we don’t—but because they’re both talented and entertaining enough to make something like this work.

Something “like” this, but not The Man. It would be easy to catalog its many failures, so why not? The story plays the race card badly, but not badly enough to be offensive. The plot wouldn’t fill an episode of Kojak (either version). The use of coincidence is clever, but the rest of the action is so mechanical (and unconvincing) that the story’s few deft moments are squandered. The biggest laughs originate with fart jokes.

That said, Levy—a dental equipment salesman who stumbles into the middle of a ATF investigation led by Jackson—has one moment of triumph near the end. After going through shootouts and ass-whippings and some time in lockup, he gets to make his big speech at the dental-equipment sales convention. And, just as he imagines in the film’s opening scene, he kills; the salesmen stand and cheer.

That’s about it. After that, it’s more shooting and farting and grown men calling each other “bitch.”

Now, dear reader, do you have some appreciation for what the critic goes through on your behalf? OK, you’re right: It was just 83 minutes.

—Shawn Stone

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