During the first third of The Rite it feels like you might be watching something good. Don’t trust it. That’s just the demon inside lulling you into a false sense of security. The film starts off moody and slow. It seems to be very meticulously building its world and building its suspense. We are introduced to a young mortician named Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue). Kovak isn’t a guy with lofty hopes and dreams, but he wants something more than painting the fingernails of the dead. So he enrolls in seminary school, with the understanding that right before he’s sworn in as a holy commando he can quit the whole thing and get a free education out of the deal.
The first thing you notice about the film as you watch it is the camera work. The compositions are always interesting. The camera’s perspective peaks from around corners, from behind fences. We get small montage sequences of static shots on stationary objects as scene transitions and establishing shots. Visually things feel carefully crafted. The camera moves when it needs to move, and it does so competently, and it lingers when it needs to linger, and always with purpose. If there’s any hidden star of the film it just may be cinematographer Ben Davis. But, unfortunately, the real star of the film is O’Donoghue; and he doesn’t manage to shine so brightly.
Kovak is reserved, hesitant to believe in anything, and unclear about where he wants to go. O’Donoghue’s performance starts off appropriately steely and restrained, but you get the sense that he is going to be forced to do more later, as the character develops. Kovak’s plan of leeching a free education goes along swimmingly until his resignation letter isn’t accepted, and a higher up decides he wants to send the young student to exorcism classes at the Vatican instead of letting him go. A melodramatic death scene with Kovak hunched over a girl who got hit by a van helps motivate him to agree. After the setup of the film played things so close to the vest, this overblown, cinematic moment felt a bit out of place; like a hiccup. But what it proved to be was a hint of things to come.
When we get to Rome, what started off slow begins to pick up a bit. The picturesque city gives the capable photography something to show off, and the film gains a travelogue pleasure. Even the interiors used are grandiose and gorgeous, and they did a believable job of standing in for Vatican City. And once we meet Anthony Hopkins’ character we get some real life injected into the proceedings. His veteran exorcist, Father Lucas, is a man who treats his insane job so casually that his casualness becomes eccentricity. Hopkins is fun and playful in the role. He’s all gleaming eyes and charisma, and he comes as a welcome addition after a first act of nothing but dour faces. Once he shows up the movie goes from building mystery and dread to being a full-blown horror film in almost an instant. We go from Rome, to Hopkins, to a pregnant girl chained up and writhing in no time flat. Unfortunately, it’s just at this moment where things should get exciting that The Rite becomes a bore.
After Father Lucas shows Michael his first case of possession, he remarks to the boy, “What did you expect? Spinning heads and pea-soup?” It’s a self-aware reminder that this isn’t like every other exorcism movie you’ve ever seen. This is a more grounded, thinking man’s take on the material. Except it isn’t. Once the possessions start we go through every single cliché of the genre that has been regurgitated ad nauseum since The Exorcist. The possessed girl uses her sexuality to try and shame the priests. She plays on their secrets and insecurities. She slithers around, convulses, and talks in a ridiculous deep voice. We get freak show makeup, impossible contortions, and CG veins. Head spinning and pea soup may technically never have shown up, but it sure feels like they did. You could get the same thing out of watching this film’s second act that you could watching a YouTube mashup of scenes from every exorcism movie that’s already been made.
Things go even bigger in the third act. Without warning the plot goes from traditional exorcism stuff to being a full-blown haunted house movie. The score booms with inappropriately epic action themes. The sound design becomes all echoey whispers, so overblown that it almost sounds like somebody left a spooky sounds CD playing in the background. The demon makes things appear out of thin air, he jumps from body to body. Before long all memory of the tense thriller that this film was in its first 30 minutes is gone.
If there’s one good thing about the movie going all crazy it’s that Hopkins ramps up his performance right along side of it. Once all of the action starts up he just completely goes for it, throwing himself into the tornado of noise and acting downright loopy. His recent work has been about nothing more than having fun acting. This is a veteran of the craft who has proved everything he wants to and is no longer worried about building a career. His highlights from this film could be confused as an audition reel for the lead in The Mask. All he needed was a green head and he would have been right at home. Hopkins’ balls to the wall, this is a dumb movie let’s at least have some fun with it, attitude was the best thing about last years The Wolfman, and it’s the best thing about this generic horror film as well.
But boy does he leave Donoghue eating his dust. Early on in the film you think that Michael Kovak is starting stoic and that later on he will develop into something else. But, when put to the test during the third act, Donoghue doesn’t seem to be able to project much. If anything he’s a black hole sucking energy in. When the end credits role you won’t be able to describe Kovak in any way other than being a protagonist in a movie about becoming an exorcist. The film tries to be about his crisis of faith, but the exposition surrounding his turmoil becomes so clunky and pointed that even that angle refuses to bear any fruit. And Donoghue’s face is a blank. If you were asked to pick him out of a lineup of ten other guys you wouldn’t be able to do it. He’s a stand in, a mannequin, without any visible soul or charisma whatsoever.
So what you’re left with is an unremarkable film that sets itself apart from the others in its genre in no way. It doesn’t fail, but it fails to impress. Other than Anthony Hopkins everything in this movie lacks balls: even the demon. For all the ballyhoo and bluster, the final biblical brawl fails to amount to anything. Why do these demons always have the same M.O.? He can make swarms of animals appear. He can possess anyone he wants. But he sticks to conjuring up frogs. And he sticks to the tired trope of possessing girls, and little kids, and making them hop around and play mind games. When it comes down to it, the worst things these demons are ever able to produce are hurt feelings and strained muscles. If he is truly evil, why doesn’t he overrun the city with man-eating tigers and possess a 300-pound cage fighter? That’s the exorcism movie I want to see.
The Upside: If there’s anything truly awful about The Rite, it’s only that the film’s title tempts too seductively toward punny writing. Also, Anthony Hopkins doesn’t care what you think.
The Downside: As I drove away from the theater I could literally feel the details of this film’s particulars slipping from my memory. Five years from now I’ll question whether or not I ever saw it.
On the side: What they mean by “based on true events” is that the main character Michael was based on real life exorcist and former skeptic Reverend Gary Thomas of The Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Saratoga California.