The whole exorcism theme has been to death in movies, and The Rite is one more reason it should be shelved for a while. No movie has been able to live up to the grand-daddy of them all, The Exorcist (1973). The Rite doesn’t even try. It’s an embarrassment to the genre.
The tale is based on the true story of Father Gary Thomas who serves as an official exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose. This is presumably the tale of how he came to be an exorcist, and it is dreadfully dull. Journalist Matt Baglio chronicled Thomas’s time in Rome in the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist”. I’ve got to imagine the book was far more compelling than the movie.
Director Mikael Håfström (1408, Derailed) centers the movie around fictional character Michael Kovak (playing the role based on Thomas) and his crisis of faith, which he must quickly sort out before, you know, he is possessed by the devil. Flashbacks show that Kovak was raised in the family mortuary, à la Six Feet Under. He has a tense relationship with his father (Rutger Hauer) and after his mother dies, he decides to flee the family business and attend seminary school.
As presented in the film, this is more or less a way for Kovak to bide his time, and get away from his father. He has no real intentions of serving the faith, but when he finds out he will have to repay his $100,000 student loan, he reluctantly agrees to go study exorcisms in Rome. He is assigned to study under the eccentric, but respected Father Lucas (who specializes in exorcisms). Together, the two become the Mulder and Scully of the Rome’s demonic possession world. Kovak scoffs at everything he sees with his very own eyes, and Father Lucas takes everything at face value with blind faith.
It’s hard to believe that Kovak is supposed to take Father Lucas seriously. He lives in a creepy, dimly lit residence surrounded by feral cats, and he seems completely off his rocker. Is it any wonder that Kovak is a doubter?
Eventually, Kovak must confront his own personal demons in order to rid Father Lucas of the one who has taken hold of him. It’s a plot development you can see five minutes into the movie (or in the trailer). Utterly devoid of any tension or scary moments, the film plods along for a brutal 112 minutes before the predictable denouement.
The film suffers from some really bizarre casting that ensures that the tired plot can’t be overcome. Newcomer Colin O’Donoghue has zero charisma or screen presence, and I found it puzzling that he nabbed the top spot alongside respected veteran actors Hopkins and Hauer. There are precious few actors who could hold their own with the two, and this poor guy certainly isn’t up to the task. Alice Braga plays the journalist who will come to tell Kovak’s story, and there is no chemistry whatsoever between the two, thus no reason to make the character female.
Hopkins tries to pull it out in the last act with his trademark bag of tricks, but all it did is make me wish I was watching Silence of the Lambs. If you are interested in a similar type of story (crisis of faith, exorcisms) I recommend checking out last year’s The Last Exorcism. That film infused the subject matter with originality, and it’s scary as hell.
As for the positives, I found the subplot about a pregnant teenager who may be possessed unsettling, and the film looks good. Lots of scenes take place at night, and Håfström does his best to invoke tension and dread into those scenes. The film was shot on location in Rome and Hungary, so the scenery is rich with history. But honestly, unless you are afraid of frogs, you’re unlikely to find this scary. Been there, done that.