Ecumenical courtroom debates about the existence of God and the Devil take center stage in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a pedantic supernatural hybrid of Inherit the Wind and Audrey Rose in which a priest is tried for causing the death of the titular college student during a Catholic rite to rid her of tormenting demons. Was Emily’s tragic demise the result of untreated epileptic psychosis, as argued by lead prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott)? Or rather, was she forced to injure and starve herself by evil spirits who sought her out because she was “hyper-sensitive” to the netherworld, a hypothesis put forth by promotion-hungry defense lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney)? The answer provided by Scott Derrickson’s preposterous anti-science horror story, unsurprisingly, is the latter, as despite his film’s wishy-washy attempts to pander to both sides of the issue, we’re clearly meant to believe that Emily – and, once she took the case, Bruner as well – were directly in Satan’s crosshairs.
With Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) charged with negligent homicide for 19-year-old Emily’s post-exorcism expiration, stupefying legal proceedings commence in which religion is put on trial and Emily’s own story – of her terrifying hallucinations, bizarre body contortions, and otherworldly wails and foreign language-peppered rants – is recounted in grimy-looking flashbacks. Its narrative divided between real-time attorney conjecture about paranormal phenomena as well as flashbacks for J-horror-inspired scares, the film fails on both counts, proving overly infatuated with tiresome special effects-enhanced screams on one stigmata-inflicted hand, and an utter lack of respect for both religious and secular viewpoints on the other. Confronted with one of the defense team’s spiritual “experts” (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Thomas argues that the testimony should be disallowed because it’s “silly.” It’s an assessment that also applies to this entire mystical movie-length episode of Law and Order.