Friday, January 28, 2011

The Rite: All wrong

The Rite (2011) • View trailer for The Rite
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual vulgarity, violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

You’d better be careful, Sir Anthony, or your career will take the downward trajectory that turned Rod Steiger into such a cautionary tale.

Steiger garnered three Academy Awards nominations during a little more than a decade, and took home the gold for his starring role in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. His moving supporting performance in 1981’s The Chosen proved to be his final truly respectable role; from that point forward, he was reduced to self-parodying comedy cameos and trailer-trash exploitation flicks along the lines of American Gothic, The Neighbor and (words fail me) Captain Nuke and the Bomber Boys.
Don't ever address the demon directly, Father Trevant (Anthony Hopkins, left)
warns Michael (Colin O'Donoghue), and don't ever look it in the eyes. But of
course the younger man does both those things throughout this laughable film.
This problem crops up repeatedly in The Rite, which routinely ignores or
violates the very "rules" established by its own narrative.

It was a grinding, embarrassing 20 years before we lost Steiger in 2001, by which time a new generation had grown up believing him nothing but a second-rate hack with – so it seemed – the worst agent in town.

Consider the uncomfortable parallel to Hopkins: a four-time Oscar nominee and winner, for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, who is much too content, these days, to deliver throwaway, self-parodying performances in dead-on-arrival projects such as Slipstream and the ill-advised remake of The Wolfman. And whatever the fan expectation for the upcoming big-screen version of the Marvel Comics superhero Thor, the discovery that Hopkins has been tagged to play the All-father Odin elicits nothing but snickers. And deservedly so.

All of which brings us to The Rite, a “January stiff” in every sense of the term. We know we’re in trouble, right from the top, when an opening crawl claims that Michael Petroni’s screenplay is “inspired by” actual events, and “suggested by” journalist Matt Baglio’s serious effort to document a controversial topic in his nonfiction book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.

In other words, Petroni’s script doesn’t even try for authenticity, and this film lacks the honesty to call itself fiction. And when the final scene (mercifully!) fades to black, a final text crawl “informs” us what these “actual” characters are doing in our real world.

Yeah, right.

Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, who did a reasonable job with the 2007 big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “1408,” gets full credit for an unsettling mood. Hafstrom has the Swedish sensibility for stark tableaus and gloomy establishing shots: abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated hotel courtyards and darkened, dusk-like skies.

And rain. Plenty of rain.

This much water generally belongs in a Japanese horror film, but while all the bad stuff here does seem to happen during torrential downpours – perhaps suggesting that rain is one of Satan’s plagues, like frogs – Petroni never draws much of a connection between precipitation and the events in his highly derivative story. I guess he couldn’t be bothered, much the way he couldn’t be bothered to concoct anything original.

Because The Rite doesn’t just evoke images of director William Friedkin’s still-classic 1973 adaptation of The Exorcist; Petroni swipes whole chunks of that earlier story. Indeed, fans with good memories will recognize that Hafstrom frames a shot of Hopkins, standing in a darkened doorway, in a manner that immediately recalls a similar frozen moment of Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin, poised to enter the house where poor Regan MacNeil awaits.

Familiarity truly breeds contempt, and The Rite earns a lot of the latter.

Still, in fairness, it opens well. Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue, a rather stiff, sunken-eyed TV actor who brings little to this party) has grown disenchanted with the family business; we meet him stuffing, stitching and dressing a body in anticipation of its final rest in a casket of the finest wood. Michael’s father, Istvan (Rutger Hauer, whose presence always augers badly in a film of this type), treats their shared mortuary business with quiet respect, and apparently expects his son to do likewise.

But Istvan is rather creepy. An oft-repeated flashback reveals how he “prepared” his own late wife, when she died unexpectedly, and insisted that young Michael watch the final touches being applied. Istvan’s peculiar behavior isn’t ever addressed in this story; deep silences apparently are intended to convey a growing estrangement between father and now young adult son.


Michael flees to a seminary college, intending to become a priest. But his heart – and, more crucially, his faith – aren’t in the process; his graduation, four years later, merely reinforces his desire to abandon God completely. But one of his instructors – Toby Jones, delivering a sympathetic (if brief) performance as Father Matthew – sees “promise” in Michael, and insists that the young man travel to Rome for a few months, to enroll in an exorcism class led by Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds, also persuasive).

Father Xavier, apparently intrigued by Michael’s endless stream of doubting questions, fobs him off on the “unconventional” Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins). Father Trevant gets results, Father Xavier tells the skeptical Michael; you’ll soon believe.

Well ... probably not.

Hopkins plays Father Trevant as the ultimate eccentric: an ascetic whose ramshackle home, overlooking the Vatican, is filled with cats. Michael’s just in time to witness a session with Rosaria (Marta Gastini), a very pregnant teenager supposedly possessed by a demon. She certainly displays many of the usual movie-conventional symptoms for such an affliction, and Father Trevant seems curiously unconcerned about the whole situation. After a brief display of prayer, chanting and cross-waving, Rosaria – apparently unchanged – is allowed to return home.

Father Trevant smiles indulgently when a skeptical Michael asks, “That’s it?

No, of course not; exorcisms can take weeks, months, even longer.

Remember that statement. It will come back to haunt this film’s third act.

Despite his doubts, Michael remains intrigued by Father Trevant; he comes along when the older man makes a “house call” to attend to a young boy whose “dream demon,” a mule, appears to have left painful hoof-print-shaped bruises on his back.

A mule, I hear you ask?

Yep, a mule. All the potential demonic avatars at hand, and Petroni picks a mule. I don’t care how much effort production designer Andrew Laws puts into a subsequent dream-state encounter between Michael and a demonic, red-eyed mule; it’s the stuff of high camp and unintentional hilarity. You’d expect such an idiotic narrative choice to be made by one of those low-rent genre spoof flicks, but certainly not by a horror movie that wants to be taken seriously.

Somewhere along the line, for unspecified reasons, Father Trevant winds up infested by this or some other demon; cue all sorts of wild-eyed ranting, raving and ham-it-up over-acting by Hopkins. Hafstrom clearly doesn’t subscribe to the less-is-more school of suspense, but he should; Hopkins’ silent, thousand-mile-stare in one scene, as Father Trevant balefully regards Michael while shackled to a chair, is much, much scarier than any of the subsequent histrionics.

Ditto all of poor Rosaria’s writhing, body-contorting suffering. We’ve seen all this before, and while CGI “sweetening” deftly makes Gastini’s skin-cracked makeup come and go in an impressive, on-camera blink, little Linda Blair was much more convincing – and spine-chilling – back in 1973.

Mostly, though, this film is slow. Grindingly, insufferably slow. The Rite is all mood and no menace: all sizzle, no steak. Hopkins (over)acts up a storm in a vacuum, and the parts played by Hauer, Hinds and Jones are too obviously token “character fill”; those actors couldn’t have been on set for more than a day or two each.

Alice Braga suggests promise as Angeline, a journalist attending Father Xavier’s class for her own reasons, but her character – despite being a ray of sunshine in these dour proceedings – never quite gels.

As for O’Donoghue, he apparently believes that gaunt cheeks and a tortured gaze convey a wealth of emotional detail. He’s wrong.

The Rite is too dull to be truly scary, but not overcooked enough to become a parody. It’s simply a misfit, much like Michael himself: a bad movie concocted from an obviously bad script.

Remember what I said, Sir Anthony: You only get so many of these, before people stop taking you seriously.

1 comment:

  1. Any time you take a classic (Like The Exorcist) and compare it to any recent demonic or possession film, its all passe. Nothing will compare to the originals. And lets face it, if you were shown some more recent films first before seeing exorcist, you may not believe the Linda's back-breaking, writhing to be very believable. The obvious doll...head spin... no chance! I guess the combination of acid and coke from the 60's and 70's just gave directors that extra spice and flare for something truly mind whacking! Bottom line, is this movie really scary? No. It's creepy at best. But maybe it's the realistic aspects that make the film less scary... but maybe actually more scary as they are closer to the truth- only you just don't know it. Are you expecting the next possessed to levitate the bed and defy physics and physical limitations of the realm God created? If you believe, its creepy because you believe such things are possible. If you dont believe, it should be worse since you dont know if it's all real. Maybe its just a bad dream... maybe not.