When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
C.S. Lewis, Preface to The Screwtape Letters
Although not as sensational as the classic The Exorcist, director Scott Derrickson’s film, which he co-wrote with Paul Harris Boardman, raises just as many theological issues that make this a must-see film for Christians. Unlike William Friedkin’s film, which embraces the belief in demons and exorcism, Scott Derriickson’s is more ambiguous in this regard, leaving it up to the viewer to decide. Both views are strongly presented at the trial of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the prosecution arguing for the scientific explanation of teenage Emily Rose’s illness, and defending lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) presenting the priest’s belief that the girl was truly demon-possessed, and thus an exorcism was called for. Based on a real happening that took place in Europe, Mr. Boardman successfully transfers the story to an undesignated part of this nation that is, fittingly enough, in the grip of winter.
But I am getting ahead of the story, which is told mainly through flashbacks at the trial of Roman Catholic priest Fr. Moore. He is being prosecuted following the horrific death of the teenaged Emily Rose after a long struggle to cure her mind and body. When the family gave up on the doctors treating their disturbed daughter, they had turned to their priest, placing Emily Rose’s care into his hands. Seeing how deeply convulsed and tortured she was, he had contacted his archdiocese. After investigating the case, they had given permission for the priest to proceed with the rare rite of exorcism.
Erin Bruner, a rising star in her law firm, is chosen to take the case when the archdiocese hires the firm to defend their priest. Because the archbishop had authorized Fr. Moore to perform the exorcism, the church feels obligated to pay for the clergyman’s defense, but with one important stipulation. Now that the exorcism has turned out so badly, the archbishop has instructed the law firm that under no circumstances should the priest be allowed to take the stand, because this could prove too embarrassing to the church. Indeed, they would prefer that the priest accept a plea bargain involving a light sentence, but Fr. Moore refused to admit any guilt. Reluctantly Erin agrees to take the case, but only on condition that she become a full partner in the firm.
Erin agrees that the priest will not be allowed to take the stand in his own defense, but she has not taken into account how determined Fr. Moore is. She is an agnostic, and candidly tells him that she does not belief in demons and such, to which the priest replies, “Demons exist whether you believe in them or not.” Furthermore, he warns her, she herself could come under attack by the same demonic forces that attacked the girl, and which now are assaulting him. She scoffs at this, but later, in several creepy scenes taking place at 3 a.m., an hour that the priest explains is favored by demons for their activities because it is the inverse of 3 p.m., a holy time when Christ died on the cross, Erin is aroused from her sleep by ominous sounds, and eventually by a burning smell.
Prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) is a church-going Protestant, but a firm disbeliever in demons. His prosecution is relentless as he brings forth a series of medical authorities who testify that Emily Rose died of psychotic epileptic disorder, and that if the priest had not stopped her from taking her prescribed medication, she would have survived. The prosecutor hammers home this point by exhibiting the over-size, gruesome photo taken at the autopsy of the girl’s bruised and battered face. Erin can at best get the experts to qualify their absolutist statements, but this does not shake them. It seems to everyone that her cause is lost.
She does manage to track down an anthropologist who has devoted her life to studying exorcisms among primitive peoples. Her take on Emily Rose’s death is that Emily Rose was truly possessed, and that the medicine interfered with Emily’s brain patterns, thereby dooming the exorcism. This testimony, seeming to have but little effect on the jury, Erin must decide whether or not to allow the priest to testify on his own behalf. She is under intense pressure from her boss not to do so. However, Fr. Moore keeps insisting. When told about the diocese’s orders, he replies, “I don’t care about my reputation and I’m not afraid of jail. All I care about is telling Emily Rose’s story.” He finally gets his way, and the full details of Emily Rose’s sad story emerge, but will anybody believe it? Especially the judge and jury? And what about you in the audience?
(Note: the last paragraph and some of the questions contain spoilers, so stop reading here until you have seen the film.)
This powerful film, as mentioned above, is not as sensational as The Exorcist, or the more recent Constantine, but there are shocks and horrors enough to make it unsuitable for young children. There is a letter in which Emily Rose describes a spiritual experience involving the Virgin Mary requiring her to make a choice that reminds me of several of Graham Greene’s “Catholic” novels wherein the main character sacrifices himself.
(Remember, there are spoilers, especially in the last few questions!)
1) This is a film that could be studied from the perspective of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey;” that of Emily Rose and that of Erin Bruner. Where are they when the story begins, and where do they seem to be at the conclusion? How has each grown or changed during the journey?
2) When Fr. Moore and Erin discuss the book written by the anthropologist who has studied exorcisms in primitive societies, the priest says, “Maybe they (primitive tribes) see this as it is. Maybe we’ve taught ourselves not to see it.” How have we been taught “not to see” the world of the supernatural? How closed is the universe in the worldview of the rationalist or scientist?
3) Many of us ministers who attended seminary in the 60’s and 70’s came to espouse the “demythologizing” views of Rudolph Bultmann and other biblical scholars who were attempting to bring the Christian faith and its Bible up to date for “modern man:” what do you think of this now? Is there a need to be more open to the possibilities that the demonic might exists? How is this the thrust of Erin’s defense of Father Moore? How do you see C.S. Lewis’s words applying here?
4) What do you make of Erin’s finding the locket inscribed with her initials? Just a coincidence? But does “coincidence” really explain anything? What do you think of her stating that at “the moment I was where I was meant to be”? Have you had such a feeling/belief, and if so, what were the circumstances? Why do you think would Fr. Moore said, “You sound more like a mystic to me now”?
5) What are the pressures on Erin as she decides about Fr. Moore testifying on the stand? What has happened to her so that she decides as she does? In other words, how has her goal or dream for herself changed?
6) What do you believe in regard to the question, “Why did God allow Emily Rose to be demon-possessed, and then allowed her to die? What light does her letter shed on this? What do you make of her vision and her answer to the Virgin’s invitation to take the easy path? Does Emily’s decision sound like that of a victim of “psychotic epileptic disorder,” or that of a person, even a saint, who has arrived at a mature faith that places herself secondary in relation to others?
7) What do you think of her stigmata? How is the explanation offered by the prosecutor a satisfactory one? But is it in the light of her letter? Note how in the Scriptures the Exodus editor of the accounts of the miracle of the Israelites’ crossing through the Sea of Reeds combines a “natural” and a theological description—”the Lord” and “east wind” (Exodus 14:21) In other words, does the prosecutor’s explanation that the marks on Emily’s hands were caused by barbed wire exclude God from the picture?
8) Has this film changed how you might regard the existence of demons? Or, has it at least made you think more about this? Note that Erin, in her summation to the jury, uses the word “possible” a number of times: do you agree with her, that the strange narrative by Fr. Moore of what happened to Emily Rose might be “possible”?
9) How did you feel when the judge sentenced the priest? How can her statement about being guilty and being “free to go” be seen as a theological statement about all who believe in Christ?