I’ve never been totally sold on the idea that films reflect the social consciousness of the era in which they’re made, but the strongest argument in favour of that thesis is the cycle of possession films. In the late sixties through the seventies we had Vietnam, energy crises and Watergate on the nightly news and the devil at the theatre with Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen and all their sequels and low rent Italian knockoffs. In the 2000’s we have global recession, terrorism, revolution and war on You Tube, while the multiplex is showing Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism. I know that correlation doesn’t prove causation but the two can hardly be totally unrelated, either.
This years’ offering, The Rite, looks to take a less sensational, more realistic approach to the reliable subgenre. The marketing has gone out of its way to inform us that its story is “inspired” and “suggested” by true life incidents. The granddaddy of the sub-genre, The Exorcist, casts a long shadow even thirty years later. The Rite looks to get out from under that shadow with its sombre and literate approach. Is this tale of demonic possession filled with the Rite stuff, or does this Rite make wrong?
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Shaungnessy) lives with his father (Rutger "YOU'RE CRUSHIN' MY SMOKES!" Hauer), helping run the family funeral parlour. Although a good scholar with aspirations of higher education, his father won’t help him pay for college. The Kovaks have a long tradition of two professions: mortician or priest so, despite not really having faith, Michael opts for seminary school. He rationalizes the decision as a way to get a free education on the church’s dime. While at seminary he excels at every subject with the exception of theology. On the eve before he’s due to take his final vows Michael tenders his resignation with Father Matthew (Toby Jones). Matthew sees promise in Michael and offers him a proposition: if Michael leaves now the church will convert his $100,000 scholarship to a student loan. However, if he attends a new exorcist training program in Rome, the church will forgive all debts regardless if he stays with the priesthood. $100,000 in forgiven loans and an all-expenses paid trip to Italy is too good to pass up.
At exorcist school Michael’s doubtful attitude earns the distain of the instructor, Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds). Xavier pairs Michael up with the church’s most experienced exorcist, Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), the rationale being that without first hand, real world evidence Michael will never be able to overcome his scepticism. Lucas invites Michael to participate in an ongoing exorcism he’s been performing, that of a pregnant 16-year-old, Rosaria (Marta Gastini). After their first session Michael is unconvinced that the girl’s problems aren’t entirely psychological but after a second session, cracks begin to appear in Michael’s scepticism. The next case involves a young boy haunted by nightmares of a red-eyed mule and who bears horseshoe shaped welts that look like kick marks.
A series of events that Michael’s logical mind can’t account for soon follow: the boy accurately predicts the death of Michael’s father, Michael is haunted by eerie dreams and visions and Rosaria and her unborn baby inexplicably die. When Father Lucas falls prey to the same demonic forces he’s been battling for so many years, Michael must find both the courage and faith to battle the evil presence one-on-one.
I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for The Rite. It seems like the usual kind of early year programmer that studios routinely dump into theatres, anchored with just enough star power to make a few bucks in a competition free marketplace. In fact, I had a page full of enough Rite related puns to make even Rhett blush. I’m kind of disappointed that I won’t get to use them. While it’s no masterpiece, The Rite is an unusually thoughtful and philosophical horror film. It asks tough questions about faith and although it doesn’t pretend to have the answers, I appreciated that it took the time to ask in the first place.
While The Rite is usually fascinating and occasionally very challenging one thing it’s not is scary. There’s some good atmosphere at work but the pace is too leisurely for it to ever build. The jump scares are telegraphed way in advance and are rarely effective. It really shows the signs of too many cooks in the kitchen. It tries to be all things to all people and never fully succeeds at doing what it sets out to accomplish.
The Rite is also hampered by its PG-13 rating, though the damage is not as extensive as one would expect. From the opening scene it’s apparent that the filmmakers are going to have to shy away from the grimmer aspects of their subject matter. It detracts from the reality of an exorcism when the demon is muttering teen-level obscenities and the most potentially disturbing imagery lies just outside the frame. It is possible to make a frightening exorcism movie with a PG-13 rating, Emily Rose proved that, but this one could have benefited from a darker edge.
Any film about exorcism is inevitably going to be compared to The Exorcist. It’s not a fair standard to hold any film to, but The Rite doesn’t do itself any favours by inviting these comparisons at every turn. Michael’s character arc uncannily mirrors that of Damien Karras’: an older, more experienced priest helps a younger priest find his faith through exorcism. Michael has the same kind of dark soulfulness and shares the same faith in logic and science rather than scripture. He’s also reeling from the recent death of a parent, which the demon uses against him during an exorcism. It would have been nice to see The Rite do more to differentiate itself. Its best scenes are usually when two characters are sitting around discussing faith and scepticism with nary a demon in sight. It’s unfortunate that The Rite doesn’t play to its strengths.
I was pretty harsh on Anthony Hopkins’ performance in last year’s The Wolfman but, really, the man has nothing left to prove to anyone. Here he’s not quite up to his Silence-era best but his portrayal of Father Lucas is a lot closer to what we’ve come to expect from an actor of Hopkins’ calibre. Even when the last act of the film devolves into teeth-gnashing, potboiler theatrics, Hopkins goes at it with his usual aplomb. His wicked comic sense has returned as well and it’s just fun to watch as he twists dry dialogue and makes it dryly humorous.
I didn’t even bother to mention Alice Braga’s journalist in the plot summary because her character is so perfunctory. She contributes nothing to the story and Braga is unable to elevate the scant material. Why isn’t she the voice of the sceptic, with Michael acting as the voice of the faithful? At the very least give her something to do to justify the amount of screen time she occupies.
I tend to praise by exception, which is why this review reads far more negative than my opinion of The Rite actually is. The things that worked, worked so well that The Rite’s flaws seem exaggerated in their contrast. While it’s not a new genre classic, it is a thoughtful and absorbing drama with a disappointing third act. I suppose the last act letdown was inevitable but it still left me disheartened and dissatisfied. The Rite throws all the intelligence it displayed in the first two acts right out the window and yet doesn’t really give us the bombastic theatrics it promises. I can’t say for certain that we have test audiences to thank for that, but the last act certainly has the stink of focus group appeasement to it.
Barely four months have elapsed since The Rite hit theatres, and the Blu-ray looks how you’d expect a film so such recent vintage to look. The visual style is cool, dark and desaturated and is well represented by the AVC encoding. There’s no print damage or blemishes to speak of and no noticeable compression issues. Detail is generally very good (check out Hopkins or Hauer’s faces) but tends to get lost in darker areas of the screen. Overall the image tends to err of the side of softness. It doesn’t set any visual benchmarks but the video presentation is perfectly acceptable for a new movie.
The 5.1 DTS Master Audio track, on the other hand, is absolutely fantastic. Audio is always clear and audible even when characters are speaking in a torrential downpour and the score is omnipresent yet never intrusive. During the exorcism scenes the surrounds really come to life, with demonic whispers occurring seemingly over your shoulders. The sound designers really deserve praise: filling the sound field with subtle, atmospheric and haunting surround use, they’ve worked far harder to build tension and generate scares than the film itself actually does.
The bullet points on the package suggest far more than the Blu-ray actually delivers in the supplemental department.
The Rite: Soldier of God (6:50) is your typical EPK puff piece. Although they got Father Gary Thomas, the priest upon whose experiences the book that inspired The Ritual was based, they really don’t make good use of him. All he does, really, is confirm that the basic premise of the movie is true to life. They should have had him go one step further and relate some of his experiences beyond, or give a critique of the finish film itself.
The Chilling Alternate Ending (1:41) just tacks a few more seconds on to the ending already present in the theatrical version and makes a cheap and illogical attempt to leave the audiences with goose bumps. At the very least it does provide a truly striking image of Michael illuminated through the latticework of a confessional.
Finally, a handful of Deleted Scenes (12:39) are included. There are a couple of interesting character moments and once slightly steamy dream sequence that probably threatened the film’s PG-13 rating but overall it’s not hard to see why this material is cut., The scenes are present in anamorphic widescreen, but a bit rough and unfinished. They were probably cut very early on.
And that’s it. For a film that claims to have roots in true life cases, this is a disappointing assortment of extras. There was a real opportunity to explore the “faith vs. science” angle, perhaps getting a panel of people with different viewpoints to opine on the film or cases that inspired it. Given that The Rite wasn’t a huge box office success it’s not surprising that the supplemental package isn’t more robust but, at the very least, a commentary from the writer, director or from Father Thomas himself could have been included.
How much you like The Rite will depend greatly on what you’re hoping to get out of it. If you’re looking for a frightening film about demonic possession, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. If you’re interested in a film that’s willing to meander through the philosophical issues surrounding the rite of exorcism, then you might enjoy The Rite. The Blu-ray boasts stellar audio and visual quality but the extras are anaemic, so you’d do well to think long and hard before adding The Rite to your collection for anything more than a bargain price. You might say it’s worth owning, but only at The Rite price.
Thank you Chunk, I was given the dvd of this movie & haven't watched it yet. I wasn't sure if it was any good & didn't want to waste my time. But thanks to your review I'm very intrigued to sit down & watch this.
I hated it. I found the main actor horrible, even A.H. was doing too much.
Yeah, I struggled to make it through to the end. Kind of slow and dull.
Good review! I also agree that the film isn't that great...very average at best, and often just downright annoying. Definitely one film that I haven't much desire to revisit any time soon.
Yawn. Double Yawn.
Good review, CB. Caught the trailer on a plane last month and was all psyched to see it. Now? I think I'll pass. After The Wolf Man, I have no desire to see middling Anthony Hopkins horror films.
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