If you know all about swinging crucifixes, croaky voices and unnatural spinal movements, there’s really no need to sit through The Rite. It’s demon-busting at its most predictable and so dialogue driven it’s more like a play than a thrilling horror experience. Endless recitals of biblical data don’t scare anyone.
Michael Kovak (ColinO’Donogue) lives with his widowed father in a funeral home. He trains to become a priest but realizes a religious path is not for him and drops out. Father Matthew (Toby Jones) is reluctant to let Michael go and wants him to attend school in Italy to train as an exorcist. Michael declines but when the Father threatens to make him repay his $100,000 tuition fees, he has no choice than to go along. He is placed under the wing of Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), an unorthodox practitioner in the concept of possession and his training begins.
The poster for this film is misleading; it’s actually Michael Kovak’s story, not Father Lucas’ and, as a hero, Kovak is a disaster. He lacks faith in his religion and belief in the devil but never tells us what he does believe in or even what he wants and, while doleful eyes might work when you’re being read your Last Rites, in a two hour movie they become mind numbing. Michael subsequently gets hit on by a pretty but vacuous journalist and it’s not clear whether or not he’s feeling tempted, but when he takes only her on his first exorcism we at least know that his judgment has been compromised, as a hack’s ability to invoke Jesus Christ invokes rather a lot of questions of its own.
Anthony Hopkins is, as always, enchanting to behold, but even his intense presence can’t chivvy up any tension and his technique of performing exorcisms lack any kind of drama. When Michael points this out, Father Lucas defends himself with a curt “What were you expecting, spinning heads and pea soup?” – well, actually, yes, we were, and for obvious reasons. This particular line is also breathtakingly arrogant, with its sub-text claim that “this film is real, that other one wasn’t”. Reminding us about Regan’s bone-chilling experience back in 1973 is foolhardy, to say the least, and when Sir Ant steps out of his priestly role slam dunk into Hannibal-land for a high-octane finale, the dramatic becomes ridiculous. How the producers managed to miss that one, I’ll never know.
This film is, apparently, ‘inspired by true events’, which means Father Matthew might in fact have blackmailed Michael into becoming a servant of God, so the message for the audience must be “If you don’t give yourself unto the Lord willingly, then the Lord might just swing by and drop you an invoice you can’t pay”. This is not only a lousy deal but also a warning to stop frittering away your cash as it’s possible money transcends a little further than was originally thought and it could be that, despite all claims to the contrary, you can take it with you when you go.