When a movie comes with the label “Based on a true story,” I’m always skeptical. Is it really true or is it just a marketing ploy the studio is hoping will pull in more money? While there’s no reason to believe most based-on-real-events dramas are fake—movies like 127 Hours are anything but—horror films have proven that the phrase can be attached to nearly anything even if there’s little to no truth in it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, The Fourth Kind, Paranormal Activity, all have hidden under the guise of reality and many viewers have believed their lies. This week’s newest exorcism film, The Rite, uses this tactic as well, though its validity should quickly be squashed as viewers read the opening credits where it is revealed the film isn’t “based on” or “inspired by” true events, but rather “suggested by,” whatever that means.
Colin O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, who is at a crossroads in his life. In his family, everybody becomes either a priest or a mortician. Although he desires to be neither, he gives into the pressure and reluctantly heads to seminary school. After hearing about the massive influx of possession reports, he heads to Rome to partake in exorcism school, despite his refusal to believe. When he arrives, he meets Father Lucas Trevant, played by Anthony Hopkins, the most knowledgeable and experienced exorcist in the area, and becomes his apprentice. Little does he know his lack of faith is about to be tested when Father Lucas begins acting strangely.
At this point, the Devil has become a cliché. Without question, the Devil is the most interesting villain any screenwriter could ever imagine. He’s the king of all that is unholy, a deceiver, a liar, a master manipulator, evil incarnate. He sees suffering in the world and relishes it. You can’t get any worse than Satan, but screenwriters seem content to simply plop him in another exorcism movie rather than really explore what he can do. The Rite is another one of those movies, but luckily, it’s an uncommonly smart one and it hits on some deep philosophical and theological issues.
At one point in the movie, Father Lucas explains to Michael that the Devil doesn’t want to be noticed. He says that just because you can’t see him, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Michael responds, saying that they’re hitting a tricky area when “no proof of the Devil is somehow proof of the Devil.” This hits the very foundation of religious belief, shedding light on how believers think. Many believe things they cannot prove while disregarding fact. Take creationism vs. evolution, for instance. Believers are quick to point out the holes in evolution, but can offer up zero proof of divine creation. They're also quick to give God credit in times of joy, but never blame when tragedy strikes. If the hard work of dozens of people to rescue the trapped Chilean miners can be described as a “miracle,” how do you describe the recent shooting in Arizona? If God has his hand in one, wouldn’t he have his hand in the other? Where’s the line?
The Rite astutely observes this religious train of thought while keeping the discussion in its own world. In fact, the whole movie is a battle between opposing viewpoints. It’s a battle between certainty and uncertainty; faith and lack of; seeing what you believe and believing what you see. Unfortunately, these intellectual battles devolve into a more conventional battle between the Devil and the priest in the last block of the film, completely dropping the ambiguity of whether or not exorcisms have any real merit and simply concluding that they do.
With such a smart beginning and middle, the inferiority of the end stands out, where mindless excitement is favored over smarts. Hopkins and O’Donoghue are terrific, however, and their two performances are delightful to watch, even if they are taken away from their tense dialogue driven scenes and forced into typical horror movie theatrics.
The Rite receives 3.5/5