“What did you expect,” Anthony Hopkins’ grumbling, workaday exorcist asks: “Spinning heads? Pea soup?”
No. Those would have been entertaining. Instead, director Mikael Hafstrom’s contribution to the curiously-resilient, demonic-possession genre gives us plodding, docudrama earnestness. Purporting to be “inspired by true events,” to a point where onscreen title cards tell us the after-movie fates of fictionalized characters, and an alleged “real-life exorcist” is on tour doing interviews to promote the picture, The Rite wants to have its cake and eat it too. It’s one of those films that pretends to take questions of faith seriously, until it’s time for the money shots and CGI effects to kick in.
Dishwater dull Colin O’Donoghue stars as a skeptical seminary student aiming to swindle the Catholic Church out of a free college education, but an inadvertently hilarious (divinely intervened?) combination of accidents send him to Rome, studying under Hopkins’ scenery-chewing cleric on a case that looks, to the untrained eye, more like simple mental illness.
The Rite spends the first hour paying lip service to Doubting Thomases in the audience, which is much less intriguing than it sounds. (Hopkins happens to live in an apartment overrun with stray cats, just so they can jump out at the camera and provide cheesy shock scares to punctuate the endless exposition.) Meanwhile, if you’ve seen one young girl writhing around in restraints, hissing obscenities in foreign tongues, you’ve seen them all, yet the PG-13 rating insures that her invective is limited to the likes of: “Your mother darns socks in heck,” and no crucifixes were harmed in the making of this picture.
The only time Hafstrom diverts from William Friedkin’s 1973 playbook is a bizarre late-game twist in which the exorcist himself becomes possessed by The Prince Of Lies. But even then, Hopkins is already hamming it up to his usual ludicrous extremes, so you won’t know if it’s Satan or just lousy acting.
The staring-into-the-camera-and-refusing-to-blink-his-eyes shtick won Hopkins an Oscar 20 years ago, but that trick, like the rest of The Rite, feels moldy and rehashed.