At a time when the President is asking for evangelical concepts like "intelligent design" to share equal time with evolutionary science, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose offers the dangerous proposition of hokum as an argument for faith. Based on a true story, the film centers on a priest charged with negligent homicide for allowing a sick young college freshman to deteriorate under his care. The prosecution claims that the girl was suffering a rare form of epilepsy combined with psychosis, and that the priest aggravated her condition by forbidding her from continuing vital drug treatments. The defense claims that demons had possessed the victim and that the drugs were not only ineffective, but an impediment in the exorcism process. Part courtroom drama, part otherworldly shocker, the film basically restages the Scopes Monkey Trial and comes out once more against Mr. Darrow, and it's got the spine-twisting, tongues-speaking, devil-channeling hellion to prove it.
To add an air of legitimacy, the filmmakers have conned a handful of first-rate actors into taking lead roles that might better have been left to Christian Slater, Tara Reid, and Stephen Dorff. Instead, Laura Linney lends real gravity to the part of an agnostic lawyer who agrees to take the priest's case, provided it lands her a coveted promotion to full partner. Facing a moral crisis after getting a killer freed, Linney initially questions the priest (Tom Wilkinson), but the more he reveals to her about the case and the more she's freaked out by supernatural occurrences at home, the more convinced she becomes that what he believes is real. With Campbell Scott serving as the able prosecutor, the film initially takes a Rashomon-like approach to the flashbacks, immediately following a demonic visitation scene with its possible medical explanation. But it doesn't stay balanced for long.
"Objection! Silliness!" screams Scott when Linney starts openly dabbling in the faith side of the equation, and any clear-thinking person would happily sustain that objection. (The indulgent judge, for her part, overrules it. Like most movie judges, she'll allow virtually anything to take place in her courtroom.) At one point, Linney even argues against the role of facts in determining the outcome of the case, saying that they eliminate other possibilities. And while there's no doubt that those pesky facts are sullying the nation's courtrooms, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose gets this and other dubious points across by scaring them into people. Unlike the world's Stigmatas and Amityville Horrors, Emily Rose has an austerity that makes it more effective than other Exorcist rip-offs. The downside for the rational-minded is that it's also more persuasive.