Looks Good, right? It isn't.
dir. Mikael Hafstrom
I think my 10-year-old daughter summed up The Rite quite perfectly as the end titles popped up. “That wasn’t scary at all, dad,” she declared. When I queried her further on this response she offered the following: “I kind of liked it at the beginning because it was cool to learn a bunch of new stuff and that was pretty creepy, but when the movie tried to be scary, it wasn’t.”
Ah, the wisdom of 10-year-old girls.
At her age I was a movie geek, but nowhere near the level of her critical acumen.
This, of course, is the primary reason The Rite doesn’t work, and as a proud parent, I’m happy my daughter’s assessment mirrored my own when I first saw the movie on a big screen.
Slowly telling the story of Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a small town lad who works in the family business as a mortician with his father (Rutger Hauer), he dreams of a life beyond the confines of a fluorescent-lit abattoir where he pretties up corpses for their final viewings. So he does what any dissatisfied junior mortician would do. He enters the seminary. After all, he’ll get a free education, and, as a bonus, explore within himself his late mother’s belief that the hand of God touched him at birth.
Upon graduating, Michael resolves to resign from the priesthood until discovering his entire tuition will convert to a humungous student loan. This is ample impetus to receive training as a soldier of the Lord. It’s what any doubting Thomas seminarian would do.
The Vatican has issued a decree that every diocese be staffed with a fully trained exorcist. Turbulent times have yielded more aggressive measures. With Satan stepping up his game, the Catholic Church must raise an army to battle the ultimate evil. It's what any organized religion needing a public relations fix would do.
We follow our hero on an all-expense-paid trip to Rome. A good deal, if you can get it. Living la dolce vita on the tab of Catholic parishioners, Michael attends classes with Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), who delivers considerable background on the exorcism game. When Michael displays utter disinterest in the proceedings, the picture gets narratively annoying since we the audience would rather stay in class with Father Xavier than watch Michael mope around.
Even the introduction of religion journalist Angeline (Alice Braga) bears little fruit, as Michael has no interest in plucking the juicy apple from her bountiful garden.
Eventually, Michael is placed under the one-on-one tutelage of the unorthodox exorcist Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). Here the movie shifts from measured and creepy to dull, predictable and decidedly lacking in the horror and suspense the film’s makers would want to instill.
This is not due to any lack of enjoyable ham-slicing on behalf of Mr. Hopkins – he attacks his role like a sow nursing a full load of suckling piglets. The problem is the movie itself at this point. We follow, pretty much by rote, the teacher-student duo as they do battle with a particularly nasty demon possessing a young pregnant woman. Everything we expect to happen happens (and boy, do I mean EVERYTHING!). Michael is skeptical. Lucas is unorthodox (and why wouldn’t he be with Anthony Hopkins playing the role?). The possessed woman hurls expletives. She vomits (though not green pea soup, but – admittedly a nice touch – bloody nails).
Eventually, the demon is cast out, though glory is bittersweet. It results in the death of the woman and her unborn child. But oh, surprise-surprise, it is one clever demon. It leaves the woman to possess one of our exorcists who must then be exorcised by his partner. I will not tell you whom the possessed turns out to be, but if you would not be able to guess at this point, you deserve a spoiler right about now.
Do not worry, though. I will keep it to myself. When it happens, trust me, you will not be surprised in the least.
Seeing it all done before is not, however, why The Rite fails as a movie. The few surprises in tone during the early going turn out to be bone-headed filmmaking. The seemingly measured pace of the first third, in retrospect and upon a second helping on Blu-ray, is less about a director engaging in a slow burn and more the result of a camera jockey who has no real feel for what a genre picture needs. Worse yet, Hafstrom simply has no sense of humour, and as he lacks a discernible voice, we get a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it to, but does so in the dullest fashion imaginable.
I should say this is not all Hafstrom’s fault since the script also fails to deliver on either side of the to-scare-or-not-to-scare fencepost.
Watching it a second time, I was reminded of my first helping on the big screen and thinking at the time that the film was going to go into some very exciting and dangerous territory. When it did not, I drifted in and out of catnaps. I am also pleased to admit these catnaps were extremely edifying, resulting in mini-dreams of the most horrendous variety.
Watching the movie on this go ‘round, I was wide awake. I was, in actuality, primed to see what I had missed whilst in the Land of Nod during my first screening of the film. I thought that perhaps the movie would live up to my initial response to the first third. Alas, watching it a second time on Blu-ray, I experienced nothing as pleasant as occasional forays into sleepy time. Instead, I started to feel not unlike Alex in A Clockwork Orange – his eyelids fastened open as he is forced to endure images that drive him to a state of utter revulsion.
I, for one, might have preferred utter revulsion to utter disinterest.
There are so many potentially interesting story elements introduced in the picture that are either dropped, go nowhere, or worse, forge into utterly dull directions. Let us, for example, take the whole subplot involving Rutger Hauer as Michael's father Mr. Kovacs.
Let us do the math on this:
Number one - RUTGER HAUER AS A MORTICIAN!!! 'Nuff said on that.
Number two - in flashback we see Rutger working his magic on dead mommy.
Number three - Michael, as a child, watches from a distance and is invited into the morgue for a closer look.
What's all this add up to?
Total Creepville! Mind you, only on paper.
Well, not even that, because the script never goes deeper than the above named surface details.
From a directorial standpoint, there is a bit of sizzle to these scenes, but absolutely no steak. These moments in The Rite kept reminding me of just how creepy, sick, scary, darkly funny and even strangely/genuinely moving the scenes are in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, where a father psychologically abuses his little boy in all manner of deliciously foul ways, which leads the boy in adulthood to seek the "career" and "hobby" that he does. This is hinted at in The Rite but never followed through in a satisfying way.
Then again, Hafstrom is no Michael Powell. He is, in fact, barely a cut above a television director. I would have loved to see what someone with style and humour might have done with this material – someone like Brian DePalma, for instance. He would, at least, have demanded a script punch-up, taken the fine cast, all the great craftspeople (the movie is exceptionally well shot) and then delivered something truly memorable. Even if it had been dreadful, DePalma is a director whose dreadful movies are spectacularly abysmal – so much so that you never forget them.
However, when a studio tries to have its cake and eat it too, the result is more often than not, truly forgettable – kind of like The Rite.
Hiring a barely competent hack to direct also never helps. Zack Snyder, for example, is a bit of a hack, but man-oh-man, he does have a voice and can direct action and suspense with the sort of ferocity so lacking in this ultimately dreadful movie.
"The Rite" is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment. The picture and sound transfer are predictably excellent, but if it is extras of any substance that you are looking for, you will not find them here. The cover promises an alternative ending that will knock you on your proverbial posterior. While it is probably a preferable ending to the lame ending the movie has, it is of the trick pony surprise variety and would probably be better suited to an episode from a television anthology series. The additional deleted scenes are okay, but only worth seeing for some great Rutger Hauer stuff that was cut. The added film purports to be a documentary on the real-life exorcist the feature drama was inspired by. This might have been great, but is, instead, far too short and features more footage than we need of the cast and key creative types and clips from the film. It is, in essence, not much more than a glorified electronic press kit.