Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2005)

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann famously intoned, "It's impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” Bultmann was at the forefront of the modernist attempt to demythologize the New Testament, an attempt that was all too successful among the mainline Protestant churches and seminaries of the West. Defenders of the orthodox faith, chief among them J. Gresham Machen in America and Karl Barth in Europe, responded that a Christianity stripped of its supernatural aspects was another religion entirely. Go ahead and disbelieve in a literal resurrection; and the literal existence of angels and demons, but please don't call that Christianity.

Even those of us who reject the liberalism of Bultmann and his followers vis-a-vis the divinity of Christ and the historicity of the resurrection may find it hard to completely embrace the New Testament's abundant teaching about the spiritual realm, particularly it's forthright depiction of Satan and his demons. Nobody could credibly have accused the Apostle Paul of being a gullible superstitious rube, yet he had much to say about spiritual warfare and the demonic realm. And, of course, the gospel writers uniformly present an account of Jesus' public ministry in which confrontations with demons were commonplace. Though the average believer in the pews doesn't give much thought to the existence of demons, missionaries who've come back from places like Haiti or certain parts of Africa and Eastern Europe have no doubt that demonic oppression is still a clear and present reality. Perhaps those of us in technologically advanced societies have been so lulled to sleep that the devils don't have to show themselves openly?

These thoughts and more were provoked by watching Scott Derrickson's hair-raising film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott & Jennifer Carpenter. The movie is very loosely based on the actual case of Anneliese Michel, a German girl who was allegedly possessed by demons, and later died of malnutrition after undergoing repeated exorcisms. The priests in the case were brought up on charges of negligent homicide. Derrickson and his writing partner Paul Harris Boardman were intrigued enough by the case to spend several years researching the subject of possession. The result was this script. Anneliese Michel became Emily Rose, and the Bavarian setting was changed to somewhere in rural America.

At least since William Friedkin's 1973 cult classic The Exorcist the "exorcism film" has been a subgenre of horror. Emily Rose plays on some of the tropes of the genre, but does so in a way that presents an utterly realistic depiction of supernatural evil. No rotating heads or projectile vomiting here. No winks in our direction as if to say, "this is good fodder for a scary movie but we don't actually believe this could happen in real life." Derrickson mostly avoids going for the cheap gestures that make an audience jump in their seats, opting instead for a creeping sense of dread punctuated by moments of genuine terror. The scene where Emily's demonization begins is an effective example of using the basic tools of cinema (sound, light and cutting) to create pyschological terror. Scenes like this owe more to Hitchcock than Wes Craven. When special EFX are utilized they're seamlessly integrated with the astounding physicality of Jennifer Carpenter's performance as the afflicted young woman. Yes, there's plenty here to satisfy fans of horror, but this film has higher aims than merely scaring you.

Those aims become apparent in the setting of a court of law, for Emily Rose is more than a horror film, it's also a fine example of another venerable genre: the courtroom drama. In fact, Emily has already died when the film begins. It's through the trial of Father Richard Moore (Wilkinson) that her story emerges; and it's in the back and forth of direct and cross-examination that thorny questions of faith vs. reason and religion vs. science are framed. Father Moore is represented by ambitious defense lawyer Erin Bruner, played by a "dolled-up" Laura Linney. Representing the people is prosecutor Ethan Thomas -- a moustachiod Campbell Scott (film buffs may recall Scott's daddy George C. playing a prosecutor in a classic courtroom drama of the 50s). In a nice dramatic twist Thomas is a self-described "man of faith" who sings in his church choir, while Bruner is a "woman of doubt" who one guesses wouldn't darken the door of a church unless it helped her land a coveted partnership at her firm.

Ironically, it's the agnostic who becomes an advocate for considering the possibility of a supernatural explanation for Emily's fate and Father Moore's actions. Meanwhile Prosecutor Thomas relentlessly (and some times mockingly) hammers away at the defense's faith-based explanation of events with the rationalistic claims of science and modern medicine. Derrickson and Boardman's script leaves open the possibility of a medical explanation for Emily's condition, but it also subtly challenges the modern assumption that science deals in the public realm of facts, while faith deals only in the private realm of beliefs. Thoughtful viewers might find themselves questioning the high wall that's been erected between faith and reason, religion and science.

Beyond the thematic elements The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a well-crafted picture. The visual look of the film was inspired by the horror films of Italian director Dario Argento. What this means is that scenes of terror are often counterintuitively bathed in bright primary colors. Oranges, purples and greens are prominent in the possession and exorcism scenes, but in the courtroom the palette is dialed back. On the DVD commentary Derrickson says he was inspired by Sidney Lumet (The Verdict) to keep camera movement in the trial scenes to a minimum and let his great trio of actors carry the action. It's also worth noting that the film was shot by DP Tom Stern, making this one of the few times he's worked with any director other than Clint Eastwood.

Back to Bultmann -- is it possible to believe in the "New Testament world of spirits and miracles" in the 21st century? I believe it is. Not because of conjecture, but because of the credible eyewitness testimony presented by the apostolic writers. I've checked out the evidence and found it compelling beyond a reasonable doubt. I have faith, but it's not blind. My faith isn't (solely) based on reason, but it's not unreasonable. Ultimately though these are questions that can't be decided in a court of law -- and this film doesn't pretend that they can -- but the faith of Emily Rose and Father Moore confronts us with the possibility that there are publicly accessible answers to the truth claims of religion. "Angels and demons/God and the devil/These things either exist or they don't," says Erin Bruner in her closing argument to the jury. Truth is at stake in those questions just as it is in the question of whether 2 + 2 = 4. Lesslie Newbigin put it this way:

In the school textbook these agreed-upon conclusions [furnished by science] will be simply stated as facts without the use of the prefix 'I believe' or "We believe.' Thus every student will be expected to know that the development of the human person is governed by the program encoded in the DNA molecules. This is a fact. But that every human person is made to glorify God and enjoy him forever is not a fact — it is a belief, one among many possible beliefs. It is not part of the school curricula. And yet, clearly the question of truth is at stake as much in the second matter as in the first. It either is or is not true that every human being must finally appear before the judgment seat of Christ. If it is true, it is universally true, just as the statement about the DNA molecule is true; if it is true at all, it is true for everyone. It belongs to the public sector as much as to the private.*

Father Moore would agree. As he declares to Erin in a key line from the film: "Demons exist whether you believe in them or not."

*Newbigin quote from The Cultural Captivity of Western Christianity as a Challenge to a Missionary Church (1994)

No comments: