The Rite (2011)
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donaghue, Ciaran Hinds
Release date: January 28 (US). Almost there, innit! I don’t even know what I’m doing for the last one yet, how exciting’s that! But first, Mr Hopkins has got a small problem with his demons. May contain the power of Christ compelling someone and spoilers…
Love that poster… It’s all a question of Faith. Do you have any faith, sister? This is a hard genre to pull off, for the infernal shadow of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist has loomed large over every cinematic demonic possession ever since. Director Mikael Hafstrom (who had a stab at filming the Stephen King short 1408, with negligible results) doesn’t do himself any favours by casting Anthony Hopkins. What he needed was somebody low key. I can watch Hopkins all day long, but now Hafstrom not only has to defeat The Exorcist, he has to dampen the resounding echo of Hannibal Lector as well. He can’t. I mean, look at the poster – ‘Hello, Clarice…’ The courage of his conviction is shaken early on, just a line spoken by Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins) to the sceptical Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) in the aftermath of an exorcism; “What did you expect? Spinning heads, pea soup?” Oh, dear. You lost your faith, Mikael. The Devil has won.
It’s a standard set up; Michael ditches the family undertaker business to go off to priest school. He passes with flying colours – except theology, he’s having some difficulty with that. He decides to quit his vocation citing a lack of faith. Father Matthew (Toby Jones) sees something in him though, after witnessing Michael issuing the last rites to an accident victim (in the rain, of course) and sends him to Rome for training because the Church is seeking to have a qualified exorcist in every diocese in the USA. Apparently there’s been a sharp upturn in demonic possession cases; I blame that bloody Pazuzu (not you, Doc)! I’m not sure what Father Matthew has seen in Michael to convince him he’d make a fantastic exorcist but never mind. Michael goes but his scepticism prompts teacher Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) to send him to the eccentric Father Lucas for the proof he desires. Proof delivered by the exorcism of a diabolically possessed and pregnant young woman, Rosaria (Marta Gastini), Michael remains sceptical even when she plucks things out of his past she couldn’t possibly know, in a gruff voice no less. Anyway, after an outbreak of frogs and a possessed donkey, it comes down to Michael to deliver Lucas from his demons. But Michael doesn’t believe in the Devil… Doh!
Is it just an excuse for some religious propaganda? I dunno, maybe. The Rite didn’t fill me with the light of our Lord. Out of all the Bible-basher movies I’ve seen, Stigmata got the closest to doing that; I actually wanted to go out and heal the sick after that one, so infused (albeit briefly) with the divine, was I. Guess I’m just not worth saving. Honestly, I liked the mood of Hafstrom’s movie, the look of the piece and the brooding atmosphere. He’s got a good eye, has Mikael. But once Lucas flips and Hopkins turns on the afterburners, the effect and the carefully constructed ambience wavers; the cerebral turns visceral and not in an interesting way sadly. Lucas lapsing into a thick Welsh brogue when he gets in Michael’s face is pretty effective but later, the coarse insults come off with less conviction – nobody is sucking anyone’s cock in Hell on this show. The far superior scenes are with the possessed Rosaria. She’s not quite as OTT as Lucas, but she does have her moments (she models a fine line in vomiting up nails – no pea soup for this diabolical entity…) and the hospital sequence is nasty and messy. But in the end, the sight of Lucas screaming “BAAL!” repeatedly is at least fairly unsettling.
The thing is, with the familiar dénouement contained here, we’ve seen ‘Michael’ before quite a few times, in the tried and trusted Crisis Of Faith™ scenario. It’s Father Karras in The Exorcist; it’s Detective Kinderman in the vastly underrated Exorcist 3 – can you forget George C. Scott pinned up in a cell by a demonic Dourif, spitting out his savage “I believe…” speech? It’s Father Kiernan in Stigmata (a warm performance from Gabriel Byrne). Hey, they’re all K’s! You can also turn to Mel in Signs and Demi in The Seventh Sign – crisis of faith does make for an intriguing character arc, I’m not denying that at all. But when Michael’s winning moment arrives it merely provokes an, ‘Oh… is that all he has to do?’ O’Donaghue’s portrayal of Michael is fine (he kept reminding me of Chris Evans for some daft reason) but there’s simply nothing new for him to do here. And that’s an overall problem for Hafstrom; the moments of déjà vu are too distracting to allow the film to stand on its own two cloven hooves.
As Father Matthew, Toby Jones is annoyingly underused. I would’ve been interested to see him in the Lucas role, somebody unassuming, unthreatening. Also underused is Rutger Hauer as Michael’s dad, Istvan. The scenes between him and a younger Michael are quite poignant. And I did get a big kick out of a very strange sequence when Michael, deep in reverie is remembering his younger self looking at his deceased mother on the mortician’s slab… And then his reverie has a reverie about his younger self seeing his mother vibrant and alive. It’s like Inception, only with different states of reverie… erm, sort of. Well, I couldn’t get my head around that – brilliant. Alice Braga rocks up as journalist Angeline, investigating the Church’s call for exorcists and I didn’t fully understand the need for her character other than to have, I assume, somebody else present for the final possession; ol’ Baal can work his venom on two fronts (though she does get locked out for awhile – a generic turn of events). Ciaran Hinds – can you stand to hear me say ‘underused’ one more time? Oh, wait… the possessed donkey, shockingly underused.
Anthony Hopkins I couldn’t work out. He looks the business and there are flashes of the old genius, but it’s kind of a dead-eyed performance, sometimes sullen and I’m not sure whether it’s due to an absence of passion in the role or an acting choice. Maybe Hopkins was just playing another side to the priest, a darkness hiding beneath the maverick demeanour. Like Michael, Lucas too is riddled with doubt. He’s a weary man, a man worn down by evil and desperate for a sign from God. When it doesn’t arrive, his internal barricade against Hell’s hordes comes crashing down. He seems to be already teetering on the edge of madness the moment we meet him and it’s the ‘Devil’ who catches his fall. Anyway, the most shocking moment in the film doesn’t come from demonic pyrotechnics; it happens when Lucas strikes a child… And yeh, the Lector twang is in evidence a couple of times once Baal is in da house, yo.
As I’ve said already, O’Donoghue is all right but he gets saddled with this clunker; “That’s not the Devil, it’s just a very, very sick girl.” And that is much too close to, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” The creepiest moment for Michael comes when he phones his dad who has been hospitalised after a recent stroke. “Where am I?” His dad asks him, understandably still confused. Michael tells him, but then another voice cuts in on the line to offer condolences and to tell him his father passed away earlier that afternoon… (Wolf shivers)…
I’ve got nothing against the film specifically and I wouldn’t mind watching it again, preferably on blu-ray, because there are some mighty good shots in there, plus a few twisted close-ups of a possessed Hopkins. It’s got oodles of atmosphere but ultimately it lacks in the fear factor. Good effort, though. A title card suggests The Rite is based on actual events; they’re having a giraffe aren’t they? I recall reading something about the Catholic Church recruiting exorcists but beyond that… get away wi ye!
They keep trying, they keep missing; The Exorcist still can’t be toppled from its ungodly perch.
I’ll give The Rite 2.5 Frightful Reagans out of 5.
ThereWolf, July 2012