COLUMN: Hopkins couldn’t save 'The Rite'

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By ERIC HARRIS, Film Review

Movies about exorcisms always arouse a bit of interest with their claims of being “based on a true story.” Hopefully, the majority of today’s audience realizes that the “true story” gimmick is just that: a gimmick. That doesn’t mean an exorcism film can’t be effective, though. Unfortunately, an exorcism movie, like “The Rite,” can be ineffective, boring and pointless.

“The Rite” looks like an Anthony Hopkins film if you’ve seen any of the marketing material, but it is not. Hopkins is at most a supporting player behind the vastly weaker Colin O’Donoghue. O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a shell of a young man - and character, for that matter - who decides to enter seminary school just to get out of the family mortuary business. Why are priest or mortician his only two options? The film never really gives a reason why; a character just states it, so it’s accepted … which is kind of ludicrous. Anyway, just as Michael is about to become a priest, he decides to come clean and admit it’s not for him. But his father superior, Toby Jones, classing the film up in a couple scenes, blackmails him into going to Rome for exorcism training … once again, for almost no reason at all. The mantra of the film consists of characters telling Michael they “see something in him,” even though it’s highly unlikely that the audience is seeing any of this. We can be told a million times that Michael is special; that doesn’t make it true.

Thankfully, Michael’s Rome field trip leads him to the only redeemable aspect of the film: Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins plays Father Lucas, a veteran of the war on demonic possession. “The Rite” is only enjoyable when Hopkins is on screen. He gets to have a bit of fun with the role, playing with stereotypes (“What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?”) and acting crazy here and there. It’s an enjoyable performance and it’s unfortunate that he’s relegated to a supporting role.

“The Rite” actually could’ve have been a very campy and interesting film if the filmmakers had tried to be a bit more daring. There are snippets of whacky fun: the exorcism of a pillow, a cell phone call mid-exorcism, etc., but they are only short moments. Instead, the filmmakers went with clichéd horror ploys like the violin shriek-jump scare. But there is a possibly interesting movie buried here. For instance, take the idea that an exorcism is a drawn-out affair rather than a single, crazy night.

There’s something there, but the film doesn’t really explore it.

More interesting is the psychological subplot. Michael spends the majority of the movie as a nonbeliever who thinks that exorcists are witchdoctors who abuse their patients by not giving them proper psychiatric care. That idea in itself is not terribly fresh or interesting - last year’s “The Last Exorcism” looked into that very issue to good effect - but this film could’ve used that doubt in its narrative. This film could’ve been all about Michael’s obsession with psychiatric care. His character’s journey could have been a journey into the mind of an insane man. In fact, at times the film actually appears to be just that, but it ends up going back into plain old scary exorcism mode, so to speak.

The problem with the story is that the main conflict is whether or not Michael will start to believe in the devil. But there is no mystery as to whether or not the devil exists in this film because there is irrefutable evidence onscreen that proves Satan exists. So what’s the point? Well, the point could be that since we know the devil is real and Michael won’t accept it, this film is really taking place inside Michael’s mind as he fights himself psychologically. The climax of the film could’ve been his realization that he has believed the whole time. Then he returns to the real world, letting the viewer know that all that had passed was in Michael’s head. Sure, that kind of thing has been done before, but it still would’ve been much more interesting than what was attempted here.

The reason why the filmmakers went with the normal exorcism story is that they have to stick with that idiotic “true story” tagline. Sure, all of this really happened; that’s why there’s a “suggested by the book” credit. Really? “Suggested?” What does that even mean? Even if the book was nonfiction how could any truth possibly remain when the story is taken by suggestion alone? Maybe someone can write a version of this film in which it all takes place in Michael’s mind and this film’s screenwriter can get a “suggested by” credit. What a joke.

All in all, “The Rite” is a missed opportunity. Aside from O’Donoghue, the cast is stellar: Hopkins, Jones, Ciarán Hinds and Rutger Hauer. There are some ideas at play, but the film abandons them for the same old song and dance we see nearly every year, it seems. This movie is fine as far as disposable entertainment goes, but for a film that sticks its tongue out at “The Exorcist,” shouldn’t it strive to at least be different? Don’t bother watching this to answer that question, just go watch “The Exorcist” again.

Eric Harris of Cannelton is a movie buff and blogger who posts reviews of films at www.canneltoncritic.com.