What possessed you?
There have been a lot of movies about demon possessions and exorcisms over the years, including a rash of low budget, silly genre attempts. Of the recent efforts, The Rite might very well qualify as the best exorcism movie.
That doesn’t mean the movie is all that good. It can’t hold an altar candle to the likes of The Exorcist or Evil Dead. But it is better than trash like The Last Exorcism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Paranormal Activity 2 and Say Bill, Your Hamster is Acting Awfully Strange … Do You Think He Might Have A Gnarly Demon Possessing Him, ’Cuz He Just Ate My Foot?
Perhaps the only reason the nonsense in The Rite isn’t as terrible as it could be is the presence of Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas Trevant, a man who has performed so many exorcisms that it has become an almost casual ritual. He’ll interrupt a demon expulsion at the height of its frothing violence to take a phone call or make an inappropriate wisecrack. The job is old hat to him. He’s almost bored.
This changes when one of those pesky demons, or the Devil himself, decides Trevant would make a nice host. Like a doctor catching a cold when some brat sneezes in his face, Trevant becomes a victim of his own risky trade.
The marketing for this movie leaves no surprise as to what happens with Trevant. That, in fact, is the draw of The Rite: the chance to see a terrific actor like Hopkins act all nutty and eccentric, something he has always done well.
Unfortunately, the movie has other business to attend to, and it doesn’t focus nearly enough of its energy and time toward the Hopkins possession. Colin O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a—wait for it—priest questioning his own faith. He’s not sure if he’d rather become a priest or have sex and stuff, so he takes the logical route. He becomes an exorcist, and Father Trevant, stationed in Italy just down the block from the Vatican, is his tutor. The big question of the film is whether or not Michael will get enough exorcist chops in time to save his teacher.
O’Donoghue is rather dull in the role, so I found myself just wanting to see more Hopkins insanity rather than O’Donoghue’s boring crisis of conscience. (Wouldn’t we all?) The movie goes to a sinisterly enjoyable place in moments such as Hopkins slapping a little girl wanting to have her dolly blessed. Another, when he’s simply staring at himself while shaving, knowing there is a stranger staring back, is genuinely scary.
As for the final exorcism scene, much effort is given to making Hopkins look yucky, with veins popping out all over his face and his skin all discolored. All of these post-production and makeup effects seem unnecessary and actually take away from the moment. Director Mikael Håfström would’ve been wise to tone things down a bit and just let his actor do the work he’s capable of. Instead, he goes for cheap thrills, and Hopkins has to blast his acting through the digital makeup mania all over his face.
In supporting roles, Toby Jones is very good in the early scenes as a priest with a nicotine addiction who can’t cross a street without getting somebody killed. Rutger Hauer makes the most of every moment onscreen as Michael’s dad, a mortician I wanted to know more about. The two actors are good enough I felt their characters and back-stories deserved their own movies.
Too bad things go from great to gimmicky with Hopkins in the end. It’s not his fault. Blame those who thought this great actor wasn’t capable of pulling off a decent demon possession without distracting digital help. The Rite, by messing with his face and voice, takes two of his great tools away, and it suffers for it.