William Friedkin pretty much ruined it for every other director after making “The Exorcist.” Juggling a priest questioning his faith, a little girl possessed by the devil, pea soup, spinning heads, people falling down stairs and generally scaring the living shit out of viewers, ever since, films dabbling in the same thematic territory just haven’t stacked up. More recent films like “The Last Exorcism” have tried to solve the problem by amping up the jump scares while the opposite tack taken by Paul Schrader‘s more cerebral approach for “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” got him booted off the project, so full credit to director Mikael Håfström (“Derailed,” “1408“) for attempting something a little bit brainy. Just a shame that the wonky casting (Rutger Hauer? Alice Braga? Who allowed Colin O’Donoghue to lead a movie?) was distracting and the by-the-numbers and plodding script nearly put us to sleep.
Inspired by a true story and suggested by the book by Matt Baglio (yep, those are the actual credits tenuously tying the story to a real world foundation) we’re introduced to Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue) who is quickly tiring of his job in the family funeral home. So he does what any normal person would do and decides to make a career change and enter….seminary school? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense but apparently his father Istvan (Hauer) is a bit of hardass who will only accept his son working the one of the family trades: dead people or the priesthood. And frankly, we wouldn’t want Rutger Hauer mad at us either.
So Michael heads off to school and he does well in his studies, but on the cusp of graduation he decides that his lack of faith is too large to have him honorably continue down the path to becoming a priest and he emails his resignation from the program to Father Matthew (the talented Toby Jones wasted in about five minutes of screentime). Despite Michael making a pretty compelling case for leaving the program, Father Matthew thinks the young lad is making a mistake, and seeing potential in him (and threatening to turn his scholarship into a student loan if he leaves) he sends him on to Rome to study to become a Vatican-certified exorcist.
But even among the walls of the Vatican, Michael’s faith is still uncertain, and Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds) passes him along once again, this time to Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) a long practicing, though slightly unorthodox, exorcist. Michael spends the next little while with Father Lucas, following him along on cases, always seeing a rational explanation for what he is witnessing. Along the way he runs into a journalist (an unconvincing Alice Braga) who is investigating exorcisms and wants to come along for the ride. After some mid-movie dramatics (which we won’t detail here) Michael is suddenly forced to face his faith head on and his first real exorcism is unlike anything he’s been prepared for.
So hey, it all sounds good right? On least on paper it does. In execution, this is a film that is gearing up to disappoint a lot of people. The script by Michael Petroni settles on its crisis-of-faith theme early on and then isn’t quite sure what to do with it. As a character Michael Kovak is fairly one-dimensional and the structure of the story makes it pretty clear where is arc is going to go. It probably doesn’t help that Colin O’Donoghue — a little known Irish actor — was bafflingly chosen to lead the picture (that’s right, despite Anthony Hopkins being sold as the star, the story centers on Kovak). He must have some favors owed to him in high places over at Warner Bros./New Line because he is not ready for the big screen. O’Donoghue walks through the picture with zero personality and does little to engage himself with the camera; it’s only when Hopkins finally appears that the picture gets any life.
Running nearly two hours long, for anyone looking for some good ol’ fashioned horror scares, they will be severely let down. There are exorcism sequences here and there throughout the picture and it caps off with a big one, but its nothing you haven’t seen in other films before (and for the most part, done much better). A couple of jump scares are attempted at various points, but they also seem like last minute decisions. The mostly sombre score by Alex Heffes doesn’t lend itself particularly well to quickly edited moments to get cheap frights, and at times, the film feels nearly divided against itself, almost as its afraid to really embrace what could be some compelling thematic material. So late in the game, we get some Daddy issues thrown into the script, and a cheap rationalization of Michael’s longstanding and difficult relationship with God. And the final (and conveniently quick) embrace of his Lord and Savior — again, not aided by O’Donoghue’s monotonous portrayal — is just as hokey.
The only bright spot in the film is Anthony Hopkins, who has a lot of fun in his role as the eccentric exorcist, and bites heartily into juicier moments his character falls into in the final act of the film. But even so, it’s simply a case of a great actor elevating mediocre material. The only thing truly shocking about “The Rite” is how relentlessly dull it is. In the 38 years since Regan spider-walked, “The Rite” is yet another attempt to play in the same ballpark that comes up short. So if you’re standing at the multiplex this weekend deciding what to watch let the power of Christ compel you to see something else. [C-]