Help Me, Jeebus!
It’s Law and Order meets The Exorcist, a sorta rational, down-to-earth jest-the-facts-ma’am attitude mixed with screaming howling insect-eating demonic possession kinda thing. It’s an I-want-to-believe grudging skepticism meets dark-cloaked personifications of Satan causing religious-themed stained-glass windows to drip blood and people to go out of their minds and jump in front of speeding automobiles just as they’re about to testify for the defense. Jack McCoy would be pissed, and Adam Schiff would just wave a weary hand and sarcastically ask Jack if he was going to subpoena the Almighty next and would he just plead the case out already.
Or maybe that’s just me. Cuz I’d like to believe in every crazy-ass thing from God to Bigfoot to alien abduction to low-carb Entenmann’s, but it’s just, you know, my brain won’t let me. So I can’t help but watch The Exorcism of Emily Rose and go, “Aha, okay, I get it” as poor sheltered Emily (Jennifer Carpenter: White Chicks) starts getting “possessed.” C’mon: this nice naive girl grew up in a house full of crucifixes and cats — not that there’s anything wrong with cats, I love ’em and have too many of ’em myself, but, you know — and a mother who “did not approve of dancing” and now here she is in the big city (and it’s like, I dunno, Des Moines or somewhere, hardly Paris in 1890s or Harlem in the 1930s) and probably some boy touched her Down There and freaked her out and she convinced herself it was Satan making her tingle. I can tick off the symptoms like anyone can who devoured Erich von Däniken and In Search Of… as a kid and then launched directly into the skeptical counter-literature: the night paralysis that in the past made people think they were being attacked by succubae and today that they’re being probed by aliens, or maybe it’s just sex-guilt — an “irresistible pressure on top of her” is a sign of her possession? ooo-kaaay Stir a little mental illness into a high suggestibility and religious-bred credulousness, and of course the poor thing is going to think she’s possessed.
I think a lot of viewers will be annoyed at how Emily Rose carefully treads the middle ground, never fully giving in to either the fully credulous or the fully incredulous explanation for Emily’s scraping the paint off her bedroom walls with her fingernails and yowling in Aramaic. But I like it, even though I’m totally in the incredulous camp myself, cuz it makes the film mirror where we are a society, neither here nor there, neither totally superstitious and medieval nor totally rational and modern and yet in such a way — and here’s why I like it — to show off the silliness of it all. If you’re going to deal with ridiculous things like faith and gods and demons in a court of law, and approach it on a rational, fair-dealing level like that, whatever the outcome — even if the jury forewoman delivers the verdict by speaking in tongues — there’s already an inherent win for the side of reason. Religion has moved onto reason’s ground, into the position of having to prove itself. Religion no longer has the benefit of the doubt.
And that’s what happens. No, not the jury speaking in tongues, but the idea of demonic possession being decided in a court of law. Emily Rose is a courtroom drama framing flashbacks to the possession tale, as Emily is dead as the film opens and the priest (Tom Wilkinson: Batman Begins, Stage Beauty) who performed her failed (he says) exorcism is on trial for her death. Here’s another reason to love Emily Rose: the thinking girl’s crush Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger) is the prosecutor.
Oo, and the thinking girl’s girl crush Laura Linney (Kinsey, p.s.) is the defense attorney. And she’s coolly rational, even when weird shit starts happening and the priest warns her that she’s being targeted by Satan and there’s no witness-protection from him. You can be as coolly rational as Linney and still get totally spooked out by Emily Rose, because half of what the film is about is (if you’re taking the logical and rational road) is how we scare the crap out of ourselves, how powerful the power of suggestion is. Cuz you know, there are nights when even I can’t bear to let my feet hang off the edge of the bed for fear something’s going to reach up and snatch me.