An American studying to be a priest takes on the Devil and Mr. Hopkins in The Rite, a camptastic movie about exorcisms.
Michael Kovack (Colin O’Donoghue) has all sorts of complicated relationships — with his parents (mother is dead, father is difficult), with the church (a priest played by Toby Jones tries to blackmail him into staying in seminary school) and perhaps with God (Michael isn’t keen on the priesthood and may blame God for his mother’s death). Because “your scholarships can become student loans if you leave the priesthood” is a compelling threat indeed, Michael agrees to be sent to Rome to take part in a special class on exorcisms. (According to this movie, the Catholic Church both doesn’t have enough priests to tend to the faithful and also is determined to put an exorcist in every diocese — best joke about this wins a prize.) But class instructor Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) suspects that underneath Michael’s mopey good looks (think live-action Disney cartoon of the Handsome Prince) beats the heart of a sassypants nonbeliever. So, to school him in the mean streets of demon possession, he sends Michael to Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a Welsh priest living in Rome who is also an exorcist and a medical doctor. (And an Ac-tor!)
Michael can’t figure Father Lucas out at first. On the one hand, he seems a bit like a charlatan to Michael, someone “curing” with Latin instead of talk therapy and anti-depression medication, which Michael feels some of the “possessed” need, particularly one teenage girl who is not only possessed but also pregnant, possibly from incest. But on the other hand, Father Lucas is super-intense about all this devil stuff and during a few exorcism sessions the heretofore only-Italian-speaking girl can also chide Michael in deep-throated English.
So is the Devil real? Is Father Lucas a fraud? The movie sort of wants to have it both ways at first. There is a lot of meta-humor about exorcism — were you expecting head-spinning and pea soup, Father Lucas says to Michael. But this is also an exorcism movie, so we get our irony cake and to eat it with a side of red-eyed demon-mule.
But why a mule? Why, if the personification of all evil is going to taunt a person, does he appear as a mule? Why not a wolf or a shark — or, jeez, it’s the freaking Devil, why not a sharktopus? Why possess a teenage girl? Why not possess, say, the head of a major corporation and cause widespread misery by screwing up cell service or making everyone’s cable go out on Super Bowl Sunday? This devil is both a secret devil and one who likes big showy possession. Good fantasy needs a mythology and The Rite doesn’t do a great job of setting up a consistent one. The result is a bunch of things that could be scary if done right (animals with red eyes, for example) presented instead as rather silly (seriously, demon-mule?). For example, the movie’s mythology makes a big deal of knowing a demon’s name — learn his name and you have great power over him. At one point in the movie, an exorcist is berating the demon for his name — “God commands you to say your name” and all that (though why a command from God works on a demon...sigh). But througout this entire overwrought scene, the name of the demon is actually written on the wall, right next to the priest, in crazy-person font. So, like, slow your roll, Father Observant, and turn your head slightly to the side. Apparently, like an angry food blogger, a demon loses his power if his identity is known but his means of protecting it is writing it sloppily.
And then there’s Anthony Hopkins. Not to give too much away but SPOILER ALERT, if your movie features a knighted British actor who has played Hannibal Lecter in not one but three movies, there will probably be some scenery-chewing Sir Devil moments. Hopkins in the last act gives us an insane frenzy of to-the-rafters actory shenanigans helped along by some truly cheesetastic special effects. It is, face it, what you’re paying to see here and you totally get your money’s worth.
So is The Rite a good movie? No, but it has nice touches, cute freak-outs, sly references and a hilarious but chaste bit of romantic tension between Michael and the requisite hot-journalist role (Alice Braga). Is it fun? Oh, you betcha.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images and language including sexual references. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom and written by Michael Petroni, The Rite is an hour and 54 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros. The movie opens on Friday, Jan. 28.