The Rite a modern spin on exorcism genre
“Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him,” one priest tells another in this tale of modern exorcists. But he soon discovers that choosing to believe doesn’t necessarily help, either. It’s a literal case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The Rite is the latest from Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, whose spooky oeuvre includes Evil, Drowning Ghost and the John-Cusack-meets-evil-hotel-room horror, 1408.
The last one was based on a short story by Stephen King. This one is “inspired by” the nonfiction book of the same name by Matt Baglio.
How inspired? Baglio, a handsome enough chap to judge by his book-jacket photo, has been rewritten as a sexy female journalist, played by Alice Braga. Biggest missed opportunity by screenwriter Michael Petroni: having her shout, “The power of the press compels you!”
The story opens with Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), the son in a father-and-son funeral home run by Rutger Hauer. No, it doesn’t get any creepier than that. Forced to choose between a career in mortuary services and the priesthood (i.e., body or soul), Michael runs away to seminary school, where a kindly priest (Toby Jones) suggests he take a course in exorcism at the Vatican.
When skepticism gets the better of him, his instructor (Ciaran Hinds) sends him to visit an unorthodox but accomplished exorcist, Father Lucas, played by Anthony Hopkins.
Hopkins is a fascinating, unconventional man of the cloth, given to mumbled musings about his own uncertain faith, and apparently not above the occasional charlatanry in the course of his duties. Any more relaxed and he’d be a Ghostbuster.
“What did you expect?” he tells Michael after their first encounter with an apparently possessed soul. “Spinning heads and pea soup?”
This reference to the 1973 classic The Exorcist is just one way in which The Rite grounds itself in realism, the better to amp up the scare power when the supernatural strikes.
The director isn’t above including the occasional shot of a creepily deserted playground or a demonic-looking child, but he mixes in such mundane elements as McDonald’s, cellphones and video games, often to comic effect.
Hafstrom, who also made the 2005 thriller Derailed, with Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston, is a master of pacing, and while the film runs a full two hours, the slow build never feels like a drag.
Michael and Father Lucas pay several visits to 16-year-old Rosaria (Marta Gastini), who is both pregnant and possessed.
Meanwhile, flashbacks to Michael’s childhood slowly reveal his own traumatic backstory.
The final priest/devil showdown may strike some as over the top — let’s just say that demonic possession can make you mad enough to spit nails — but it’s a lucrative payoff.