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"Emily Rose" Effectively Explores God's Existence

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2005 9 Sep
"Emily Rose" Effectively Explores God's Existence

Release Date:  September 9, 2005
Rating:  PG-13 (thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing images.)
Genre:  Horror/Suspense
Run Time:  114 minutes
Director:  Scott Derrickson
Actors:  Tom Wilkinson, Laura Linney, Jennifer Carpenter, Campbell Scott, Shohreh Aghdashloo

If you were convinced of the devil’s existence, would that prove the existence of God? “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” poses this question and points to answers that will be mostly encouraging to believers, but the film may leave enough lingering doubts to assuage a skeptic’s troubled conscience.

The film opens just after the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), as Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is taken into custody by the authorities. His subsequent trial on charges of negligent homicide in Emily’s death provides the framework for Emily’s story, told mostly through flashbacks during Father Moore’s trial.

We learn that Emily, after leaving home to go to college, was overcome by forces beyond her control. After numerous fearful late-night episodes with these forces, Emily turns to Father Moore, who convinces her to stop taking her medication and to use “faith alone” to confront the darkness slowly enveloping her.

But Emily’s tale is only half of the movie. The other half is the story of Father Moore’s lawyer, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney, in a nice performance), an agnostic forced to reconsider the spiritual realm as she dives into the defense of her client.

On the heels of a previous client’s exoneration, Bruner is handed Father Moore’s case, and promised a ticket to the top of her firm. But her dream of having her name on the door of her law firm is put to the test when, warned by Father Moore of “dark forces” at work in the case, she is mysteriously awakened at 3 a.m., mirroring chilling incidents in Emily’s life. Father Moore, recognizing the inner tumult behind Bruner’s poised exterior, confronts her: “You’re under attack,” he tells her, explaining that a “spiritual battle” is underway. Yet his pleas to tell Emily’s story to the jury are rebuffed by Bruner, who has been warned by her boss, at the request of Father Moore’s superiors, to keep Moore off the stand.

Forced to confront her own skepticism about demonic possession, Bruner calls in a spiritual “doctor” who testifies that different personality types showcase different levels of receptivity to the spiritual realm (“hypersensitives,” for instance, can see the dead).

But when another key witness refuses to testify, Bruner is forced to revisit Father Moore’s plea to take the stand – and to reassess her professional ambition in light of supernatural events that occur during the course of the trial.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is at its best in telling Bruner’s story, to which Linney brings a quiet force, but the film falters in its depiction of her courtroom counterpart, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) – chosen to prosecute the case against Father Moore because of his own Christian faith. Scott’s role could have added more complexity to this otherwise fine film by showing the case’s differing effects on people of the same faith. Instead, while viewers are invited to see the spiritual forces at work in Bruner’s life, the film sheds little light on her Christian adversary in the courtroom. Is he perhaps a pawn of the “dark forces” at work in the trial? The filmmakers don’t say, but Thomas’ opposition to Moore’s defense – and the short shrift the script pays his character – may lead viewers to think so, squandering an opportunity to provide a more balanced perspective on the nuances of Christian calling. The defect is all the more disheartening because it saddles Scott, one of our finest actors, with a role that gives him little to do.

Disappointingly, the film also resorts to deafening sound effects to elicit the jump-out-of-your-seat moments it assumes today’s audiences demand. Too bad the filmmakers, who do an otherwise nice job of building atmospheric suspense without transgressing the boundaries of the film’s PG-13 rating, didn’t stop short of this impulse, as no loud noise or slamming door can match the film’s most effective visual scare: an image of a contorted Emily on her dorm-room floor.

Yet there’s much to compensate for these drawbacks. In telling the story of Emily Rose – very loosely based on a real-life case – the movie largely vindicates both the title character, who believed she was indeed possessed, and Father Moore, who tried to exorcise Emily’s demons. Carpenter pulls off an eerie transformation from bright-eyed, college-bound student to prisoner of forces beyond her control, while Wilkinson offers the unwavering conviction and spiritual insight needed to convince Bruner of his genuineness.

To the film’s credit, although “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” stacks the deck against agnosticism, the ultimate outcome of the case leaves open the possibility that the prosecution may have been justified. Still, the harrowing audio tapes of the exorcism reveal extraordinary forces that demanded aggressive treatment, whether spiritual or physical, and these, combined with the film’s earlier visual depictions of Emily’s late-night battles with forces beyond her control, leave little doubt that her physical frame could withstand only so much violence.

One final note of caution. While the film points to a supernatural realm, and to God, it provides some flimsy testimony to buttress the more effective visual depictions of supernatural forces at work. At one point, Father Moore gives voice to a belief in “the witching hour” – when evil forces supposedly are most potent – and he cites a view of Halloween with which some Christians may take issue. Perhaps most controversial will be the film’s overt Catholicism. While the story is ultimately about the existence of God, it is told most passionately through Emily’s own direct revelation of spiritual truth – and to accept her revelation is to accept certain beliefs exclusive to Catholic theology. Protestants should consider themselves warned, even though any Christian in search of a thoughtful, yet accessible, film likely will find rewards here.

AUDIENCE:  Older teens and up


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Defendant’s lawyer visits a bar. Emily takes prescription drugs for possible epilepsy.
  • Language/Profanity:  Prosecutor says he needs a Christian lawyer who “knows this s---” to take on the case. A lawyer is told she’s “screwed [the case] up beyond repair”; demonic possession is labeled an “archaic and irrational superstition.”
  • Sex/Nudity:  None.
  • Violence:  Disturbing scenes and images of Emily experiencing what appear to be demonic attacks, although the prosecution argues these may have been epileptic in nature. Emily sees human faces melt or change into demonic form. Emily’s body is contorted into an unnatural position. Apparent demons speak through Emily. A cross on Emily’s wall falls upside down during an attempted exorcism. A grisly photo of Emily’s corpse, initially seen only in fleeting glimpses during the court scenes, is more fully revealed toward the end of the film. Horrific sounds emanate from a taped recording of Emily’s attempted exorcism.