Something’s wrong with Emily Rose, a college student from a devout Roman Catholic family in the Midwest. Once a happy-go-lucky girl, she has started seeing strange visions, falling into body-contorting convulsions, speaking in strange voices and mutilating her body. Doctors at first suspect epilepsy or psychosis. But when Emily does not respond to medical treatment, her family and the Catholic Archdiocese suspect something more sinister: demon possession. Father Richard Moore, the family’s priest, is called in to perform the rite of exorcism to rid Emily of her demonic tormentors.
Father Moore is not successful. Emily dies. And Moore is charged with negligent homicide.
The Archdiocese wants the case to go away and hires hotshot defense attorney Erin Bruner to work out a plea agreement. But Father Moore will have none of it. He insists on telling Emily’s story, even if it means he will not be granted bail and is likely to be convicted in the process. His attorney, whose belief in things supernatural is so shaky she only thinks she’s agnostic, is presented with the perplexing dilemma of having to defend a man who believes in things she can’t even begin to imagine. (Father Moore says to Erin, “Demons exist whether you believe in them or not.”) The ensuing courtroom showdown pits the sureties of faith against the presuppositions of science—a true clash of worldviews.
Father Moore courageously takes on a case that by his own admittance scares the wits out of him. Emily’s family and her friend, Jason, while also scared to death, stay with her to help. Erin, while having her doubts about Catholic teachings, throws herself into the defense. She ultimately commits to a course of action that will threaten her job but will allow Father Moore to accomplish his main goal: to speak of Emily’s faith and God’s faithfulness, even if doing so means he will lose his case.
As for the result, I’ll state only that the jury’s findings are a perfect balance of law and grace.
While the courtroom segments of this story are used to explore the supposed rift between faith and science, the story assumes the reality of demonic possession. It does not play this for cheap shocks, either. The scenes of Emily’s possession—unseen forces in her dorm room, visions of demonic faces, eerie sounds—are genuinely scary but not overly sensationalized. There is no head-spinning or vomit-spewing here à la 1973’s The Exorcist, just a genuinely creepy confirmation of the sheer, unimaginable hatred demons have for anything of God.
Emily is possessed by six demons, including Satan himself, who calls himself Belial (2 Cor. 6:15). The demons, in identifying themselves to Father Moore, allude to several instances of demon possession in the Bible, including one who says it was with “Legion,” the demons mentioned in Mark 5:9 and Luke 8:30. As the demons taunt Moore in Latin (with subtitles), he responds (also in subtitles), “I am the one who comes in HIS name.” By this the priest is making it clear that he is not a lone ranger acting in his own capacity but operating with the power of God.
While feeling himself under demonic oppression, Father Moore prays to God and to the Archangel Michael and recites the Hail Mary. He states that 3 a.m. is a sort of demonic witching hour because it mocks the Holy Trinity and is the opposite of 3 p.m., the hour that Jesus died on the cross. He also recites John 1:1-3, and the demons mockingly recite it back.
In a message said to be from the Virgin Mary, Emily is told that she can come to heaven immediately and end her suffering, or she can stay and be used to turn people to Mary and to God. Emily chooses suffering. As she says in a note to Father Moore, “People think that God is dead. How can they believe that if I show them the devil?”
The Rose family possesses several Roman Catholic icons, including a statuette of Mary and a crucifix. (During the exorcism the demons cause the crucifix to hang upside down.) In terror at what is happening to her, Emily runs into a church and up to an altar with a cross on it. An anthropologist testifies to having witnessed demon possession in many cultures around the world, and she also alludes to some people’s ability to see the dead.
The prosecutor says, “The DA doesn’t like it when someone puts religion above the law.” And he describes himself as “a man of faith and a man of facts.” Emily had allegedly received stigmata, marks on the hands and feet resembling the wounds from Christ’s crucifixion, but the prosecutor says they’re the result of an encounter with barbed wire on the Rose family farm. Erin says she’s not even sure if she’s an agnostic. (Insightfully, Father Moore says, “If you’re not sure, then you are one.”)
At the end of the movie, Father Moore states that he chose the epitaph for Emily’s gravestone, taken from Philippians 2:12, which reads, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (I wish he had included the statement that follows in verse 13: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”)
While not overtly violent, the spasms and contortions of Emily’s body are quite disturbing. During the exorcism a cat attacks Father Moore’s face, and Emily leaps through a second-floor window. The demons cause part of a horse’s harness to fall and hit Father Moore. A horse rears up in terror and kicks Emily’s father. Emily, under the influence of the demons, punches her father and slaps Father Moore. Father Moore touches a small crucifix to Emily’s neck, which causes her to scream. A man is hit by a car and crashes through the windshield. (We learn later that he was killed.)
One use each of the s-word and “son of a b–ch.” “H—” is used three times. God’s name is exclaimed (improperly) a couple of times.
Erin is fond of martinis, and several scenes are set in an upscale bar frequented by lawyers. One of her partners jokes, “She even works while drinking.” After a setback in the trial, her boss asks her if she’s getting drunk. “Not yet, but I’m working on it,” she responds. We see Emily swallow an antipsychotic drug prescribed by her doctor, and there are several discussions about this drug during the courtroom scenes. A college student lights up a cigarette.
During the demonic possession Emily eats insects and scratches the wallpaper off the walls with her fingernails. A gruesome postmortem photo of Emily is shown during the trial.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on the real-life story of Anneliese Michel, a German college student and devout Catholic who died during an exorcism in 1976. Doctors said her seizures and visions were caused by epilepsy. Her family and their bishop believed it was demon possession. German officials responded by prosecuting the parents and priest for criminal negligence. (They were found guilty but given suspended sentences.)
Co-writer (with Paul Harris Boardman) and director Scott Derrickson, a graduate of Biola University, said his purpose in making Emily Rose was “not to persuade” and “not to provide any metaphysical answer” to the question of whether demonic possession is real. His purpose, in the words of religion columnist Terry Mattingly, was to “make believers think twice about what they believe and doubters have doubts about their doubts.”
Derrickson added, “The research phase was horrible. I am glad that I know so much about it. … I also feel that for me, as a Christian, it is good to have that knowledge. But I will never do that again.” That sentiment should guide potential viewers of this film. This is not a movie one sees merely to be entertained. It’s pretty grim in places and quite dark. But it is not exploitative. It also tells a story of faith and compassion. Father Moore is quiet and utterly selfless. He is a man of resolute faith. And despite what is happening to her, Emily seemingly never loses her faith in God. (The story doesn’t deal with the issue of whether Christians can be demon possessed.) The exposition during the courtroom scenes explores the relationship between faith and science—and between faith and doubt. (No, the two are not necessarily in conflict in either case.)
It strikes me, then, that such demonstrations of selflessness and faith are rare for any type of movie. But they are truly unique considering Emily Rose‘s genre. And, indeed, in this movie’s case, it’s the genre it belongs to (and a few of that genre’s stock-in-trade methods) that most needs exorcising.