'The Rite' Wants You to Believe in God (and Anthony Hopkins)

‘The Rite’ Wants You to Believe in God (and Anthony Hopkins)

I hate to call atheism “cool” these days. “Cool” is a word for pork belly entrées or jeggings or “homemade artisanal spirits” (a.k.a., moonshine), not the ideological choice to disbelieve in a higher entity. Nonetheless, fully (and publicly) embracing religiosity and all its hymn-reading cross-loving righteousness is very distinctly uncool.

All of which presents an interesting backdrop for an exorcism film that takes place in the Vatican (The Rite, in theaters today). The built-in skepticism of the digital age sets up a hefty challenge before the first camera ever rolls: How the hell do you sell a movie about devout Catholics fighting hordes of tongues-speaking slime-spitting demon-hosts to an audience full of Godless iPad addicts?

One way, of course, is to humanize everyone — the priests, the nuns, the possessed, the works. Which is precisely the route director Mikael Håfström (yes, he’s Swedish — which on its own is enough to get you a job in the entertainment biz these days) decides to take. Chain-smoking nuns in Fiats, swearing priests with rude cell phone habits, even seminary schools where slacker priests-in-training play Xbox; we’ve got them all here. In fact, when they’re not waving crosses and chanting in Latin, these exorcists are (relatively) normal members of middle-class society. Sure, they spend their days with possible schizophrenics who roar Mesopotamian blasphemies and vomit up the occasional crucifixion nail — but whose day job isn’t a little crazy?

Into this over-normalized fray comes Sir Anthony Hopkins as the grizzled and pensive lone wolf of the exorcism racket. Whether or not this is yet another paycheck movie (and hey, who are we to judge — yachts are friggin expensive), Hopkins doesn’t treat it like a paycheck movie. No, he treats it like a finale of sorts, a veritable swan song of “Just OK” films that dot his career trajectory like bed bug feces. He’s in it to win it with this one: long, earnest monologues about the waning allegiance of faith; anguished lamentations over a lifetime of fighting evil (and, from what it looks like, getting his ass kicked); brutal tongue-lashings for anyone who crosses him or his army of feral Roman cats. None of it resembles the phoned-in camp he dealt out in The Wolfman or his fall of the house of Lecter in Red Dragon. Hopkins is still working up a storm in this business, racking up at least a movie a year, and The Rite is clearly one project he saw as an opportunity to express… well, something.

But no amount of Hopkins thespianism or sexy smoldering priests (co-star Colin O’Donoghue, whose only real task is to look skeptical and fuckable in his clerical collar) can overcome the fundamental problem with this, and every, exorcism movie: Things can only turn out one of two ways. Either the person is possessed by a demonic entity, thereby asking you to believe in God and Beelzebub and the entire spectrum of wafer-eating crucifix-waving nonsense… or he’s not. Classics like The Exorcist deal with this dilemma by minimizing the whole religiousness of it all — apart from a few drunken-priest scenes, they stay with poor little Linda Blair, whose unyielding suffering eventually makes you desperate to believe in anything that could save her (even Catholicism). Follow-ups like The Exorcism of Emily Rose also find success with this formula.

The Rite does give a nod to its predecessors (after showing O’Donoghue his first “possessed” teenager, Hopkins asks him, “What did you expect, spinning heads and pea soup?”). But from the outset, this wants to be an exorcism movie about priests, not victims. The whole point is one reluctant dude’s journey from skeptic to believer, all in the course of a few demonic visits, hallucinations and close encounters with those Hieronymus Bosch-types they show writhing across the illustrations in ancient texts. (Side note: where do they keep all these “ancient texts” that always make cameos in these movies? Is there some Lost Ark-style warehouse underneath the Vatican that houses all this crap?)

Unfortunately, the reason good exorcist movies stick to the script is that shifting focus to priests brings you dangerously close to a big fat sermon. “Here’s why you should believe in God — or why you should at least consider it!” Which is precisely where we wind up. While the special effects are as good as any (and the seriousness is a welcome change after the buffoonish joke that was The Last Exorcism) The Rite winds up trying way too hard to teach you something. It’s all based on true events! The Vatican really does train exorcists! Really, we have credibility here! This tactic sits poorly with an audience that can whip out smartphones and Google “exorcism hoaxes” as they leave the theater.

Still, ingrained skepticism aside, this movie does achieve something rare in horror: the slow-building sense of dread. No one does dread these days — it’s all hacked limbs and oozing entrails before the opening credits run. The only director who continues to make subtle unease an art is Ti West — his House of the Devil gradually wraps your stomach in maraschino-stem knots (though he sticks to devil worshipping, without any actual possession). Håfström drums up some decent dread here — he paces the craziness well, and summons the “Oh man, shit is about to go seriously wrong” feeling that differentiates true horror from the skull-drilling artery-spurting parlor tricks of the Church of Eli Roth. Which, in and of itself, is an accomplishment worth worshiping.

Melissa Lafsky is possessed… with a love of horror!