A Girl Possessed - or a Director Obsessed?

There are no spinning heads, projectile pea-soup vomiting or levitating beds in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (opening Sept. 9), starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter and Campbell Scott. Director Scott Derrickson and his co-writer Paul Harris Boardman made sure of that.

“When you make a movie with this subject matter, you've got to reckon with The Exorcist and what a popular film that is,” commented Derrickson, a devout evangelical Protestant, at a recent New York press conference the Register attended. “And I think that, in the writing of it, we both felt that we would get around that problem by making a much more realistic movie.”

The film is based on a true, tragic story of a pious young German woman named Anneliese Michel. In 1976 she starved herself to death after nearly a year of exorcism sessions, resulting in a criminal trial for the priests and her parents.

In the film, the story takes place in the United States, and the girl's name is Emily Rose (Carpenter). Whether the girl's demons are real or in her mind — and whether or not her sincere, devout priest (Wilkinson) is guilty of negligent homicide — are questions the film raises but doesn't answer definitively. Also in play are larger questions regarding the existence of spiritual realities and ultimately God himself.

Part of this open-endedness involved keeping it real — and doing the research necessary to do so.

“The research phase was horrible,” admitted Derrickson, “[and] pretty intensive. I probably read two dozen books on possession and exorcism, and viewed a lot of videotape of real exorcisms, and heard audiotapes of real exorcisms. … I'll never do that again … not again.”

What drew him to this material? Derrickson explained that it was the opportunity to bring spiritual concerns to the fore in a medium that has often ignored them.

“It's been tough for me to feel so passionate about my faith, to care so much about it … and to be a lover of cinema, and to have cinema be so void of good religious subject matter,” he responded. “I think [religion] tends in the modern era to be treated almost the way sex was treated in the '50s — it's like, if you just watched our movies, you wouldn't even know it was part of our culture.

“What I wanted to do was write something that wasn't propaganda, wasn't about trying to persuade people to think the way that I do, but recognize the fundamental importance of that question, the central question — does the spiritual realm exist? Is there a devil, and more importantly, is there a God? And if so, what are the implications of that?

“I don't care what you believe,” he added. “Those are questions to be reckoned with. Everyone has to answer that question. And in some ways everyone lives their life based on what they believe about that question.”

Linney, who plays the priest's skeptical defense attorney, acknowledged that the film raises important questions even as she struggled to address those questions herself.

“I think opens the big question,” she said. “Where does evil come from? Is it stuff in our brains? Or is it something outside ourselves? I don't know. I just honest-to-God don't know. I hope not. I hope not. And I do believe in something bigger than me, I do, I do, I do, I do. And this is where I get caught up. I don't know [about evil]. I hope not. I hope that evil is just a man-made thing.”

Linney's biggest concern was that the film engages its issues in an evenhanded way.

“I wanted to make sure that both arguments were fully and completely explored and that it was balanced,” she said. “I wanted to make sure the movie was not telling people what to think or believe, and that it presented two complete sides to the discussion.”

Does the green-lighting of this project reflect a new openness in Hollywood toward spiritual subjects?

“I can't speak for anyone, why they green-light a movie,” Derrickson said. “It was green-lit the weekend after The Passion [of the Christ] opened. But it also happened to be the weekend that the head of Screen Gems read the script.

“I was very fortunate, because Clint Culpepper, the head of Sony Screen Gems, is not scared of this material. He likes the fact that it has spiritual content. He appreciated that, and never made any attempt to back off from that in any way.”

While the film's spiritual content may be challenging to skeptics, believers may find themselves wrestling with the film as well. For one thing, Emily, a devout girl from a Catholic family and apparently guiltless, seems an unlikely candidate for possession. A pious soul in the state of grace might possibly experience demonic oppression — even direct physical abuse, such as that experienced by St. Padre Pio — but possession, demonic powers speaking and acting through a person, is another story.

Derrickson approached this question gingerly.

“I do not believe that a spirit-filled Christian can become demon-possessed,” he acknowledged. “However, what I will say is that for every one of those theological rules that we like to systematically create, there are often exceptions. I don't believe that God will tell me to go commit a sin, but he told Abraham to murder his son. I think that there are sometimes exceptions to the rule …

“The movie is intended to stretch and provoke everyone who sees it, including Christians, including believers. It did that to me. That's one of the reasons why I thought it was a worthwhile story. When we got into the making of the movie, I thought, there is a way to construct this thing so that there's just no easy wrapping this movie up — for anyone.”

Boardman concurred. “It's not like The Exorcist, where they go back to the explanation [of] the more typical thing of you playing with … Ouija boards,” he said. “It's not as simple as that. There are things you don't know.”

Derrickson also admitted that, as an evangelical Protestant he is challenged by the Catholic milieu represented in the film, which includes an apparent encounter with the Virgin Mary.

“I am a Protestant. There are specific reasons I'm not Catholic — but I'm pretty close,” he allowed. “One of my closest friends, [Register columnist] Barbara Nicolosi [of Act One: Writing for Hollywood], always teases me that I'm one Chesterton book away from crossing over. Chesterton is my favorite writer. Orthodoxy is the greatest book I've ever read. I have a lot of appreciation and a lot of personal affinity for Catholicism, and aesthetically I have much more appreciation for it than the Presbyterian denomination.”

Stay tuned for The Exorcism of Emily Rose — and for the spiritual development of its director.

Steven G. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.