With little enthusiasm, I attended a screening of The Rite today and I can report that it was...not quite as lousy as I had feared but still weak sauce. Can we just agree that of all the sub-genres in horror, demonic possession has produced the most sorry lot of also-rans? Most recently, The Last Exorcism (2010) had good performances but the movie around them had the misfortune of being shit. On that count, The Rite betters Last Exorcism but it's still banal and middle-of-the-road.
The Rite is a movie that wants to be above pandering to the cheap seats (we know this thanks to a derisive comment made by Anthony Hopkins' character - when an exorcism fails to meet an observer's expectations, he asks them with a chortle: "What did you expect? Spinning of the heads?") but it's not smart enough to be involving on a higher level, merely somber. Director Mikael Hafstrom did ok by the Stephen King adaptation 1408 (2007) but that movie had an energy to it (largely thanks to John Cusack's performance) that The Rite does not.
Colin O'Donoghue is the film's lead, playing the dour Michael Kovak - a young man who entered into the seminary merely as a way to fund his college education and who, after four years, is ready to bail before taking his priestly vows until Father Matthew (Toby Jones) persuades Michael (with the threat of making him pay off his sizable student loans if he ditches the church after enjoying an education on their dime) to travel to Rome to take a course that'll teach him how to be an exorcist. That eventually brings him in contact with Father Lucas (Hopkins).
The doubtful Michael observes Lucas in action performing exorcisms and Hafstrom makes the mistake of showing us sights during these sessions that no sane person could write off - as Michael does - as being wholly the product of mental illness. I suspect that either Hafstrom, the studio, or both, thought that audiences would be impatient if they didn't see enough FX and so on prior to the climax but yet it hurts the film dramatically to see Michael witness so much and yet still be stubbornly, obstinately unconvinced. Even Dana Scully would've slapped this guy.
Had Hafstrom staged these early incidents in such a way that even we in the audience could have reasonable doubts as to Lucas' prognosis of possession, then we'd be in Michael's corner more. As is, the character just comes off as dense.
The other big problem with The Rite - it's number one problem, really - is that there's only one movie to date that's staged a great exorcism and that's The Exorcist (1974). That movie did it all, it did it best, and anything after just seems like a weak pretender. Worse, like parody. William Peter Blatty was aware of this when he made Exorcist III (1990). That's why he fought the studio so determinedly to try and not include an exorcism. In fairness to the studio, though, I think they were right to believe that any audience going into Exorcist III would be royally pissed if the movie contained no exorcism.
At one point, before Blatty stepped into the director's chair, John Carpenter was in talks to helm Exorcist III and in the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, he says he argued his own case for an exorcism with Blatty: "I kept suggesting a third-act exorcism and kept pushing the both of us to come up with some new, exciting and grotesque devil gags." Blatty resisted this but, of course, he eventually ended up directing the film himself and being forced to include an exorcism anyway - a challenge he rose to admirably, if begrudgingly. I love the film Blatty made but I also would've loved to have seen how Carpenter would've handled the material. His Prince of Darkness (1987) remains one of the very few (only?) post-Exorcist demonic possession movies to do something distinctly different in the sub-genre while still coming through on the visceral shocks that go with the territory.
Sorry, I'm getting away from The Rite here but, really, there isn't much to talk about. Another huge misstep Hafstrom makes is including the usual foul-mouthed demon talk. If there's any one influence from The Exorcist that needs to be permanently shelved, it's that. Regan's vulgar dialogue still works in The Exorcist but it's been laughable in any movie since then. I don't know what demons should be saying to get our attention these days but the lascivious come-ons, the dirty taunts, the obscenities - they all need to be retired. The Rite does a little better in having the possessed Father Lucas (a plot point revealed in the film's advertising so no spoiler warnings here) show some of Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter persona, digging into the psyches of those around him. But at the same time, it feels too much like Hopkins just reaching back to familiar shtick. Rutger Hauer plays Michael's dad in flashback scenes and I wish that he had been cast as Father Lucas instead.
During the climax, to win against the demon that's possessing Father Lucas, Michael must come to terms with whether he really believes in God and the Devil - a crisis of faith that comes off as a call back to Fright Night (1985). That movie cleverly introduced an intriguing wrinkle into vampire lore, saying that a crucifix only works on a vampire if the person wielding it has faith. The Rite tries the same thing with Michael needing to believe in the power of the cross again before it will do him any good. One expects Hopkins as the possessed Lucas to spit out the line "You've got to have faith for that to work on me!"
Similar words could be spoken to Hafstrom and his collaborators on The Rite. You've got to have faith in the movie you're making if you want viewers to invest in the story you're telling. If you don't believe that your movie really needs to exist, nobody else is going to believe it either.