Review: THE RITE Tries To Scare With Spiritual, Existential Horror

THE RITE isn’t all about impossible contortions and pea soup spitting. But does having something smarter to say make it any better?

My favorite scene in The Exorcist wasn’t even in the original released version. It’s added in the ‘Version You’ve Never Seen,’ and it’s a moment where Father Karras and Father Merrin sit, exhausted, on the steps outside Regan’s room. Father Karras wonders what the point of the possession is, and Father Merrin answers that it is simply to shake our faith.

There are some who will say that scene is too on the nose (which is why it was cut), but I’ve always felt it crystallizes the entire meaning of the film. Regan isn’t the target of the demon, just the weapon. She’s being used to shake the faith of everyone around her.

Too many exorcism films miss that point. They go for the shock and gross-outs but don’t realize what makes The Exorcist truly haunting is the nature of evil at its center, the way that the film is really about a battle for souls. Whatever else The Rite is, it’s a movie that attempts to be about a battle of souls in the tradition of The Exorcist, and that makes me like it.

Colin O’Donoghue is a young man trapped in a life he hates; the only out he sees is the seminary, but after four years of school he doesn’t feel like he has the faith to go on. But it turns out that when you sign up for the seminary you sign a paper agreeing to pay back the worth of your education if you don’t pull the trigger and go all the way. And so Toby Jones, playing Father Plot Mechanics, convinces the young priest to go to the Vatican and take an exorcism class.

None of this makes sense, and it’s part of what keeps The Rite from being a much better movie - the script is messy and not particularly well put together. It’s a script that’s only interested in the scenes between exorcists and possessed people, and it pulls all sorts of contortions in the other scenes to get where it wants to be, believability or character motivation be damned. I just don’t see how sending a man who has no faith in God to study the most radically weird aspect of the modern church - the least believable stuff, basically - is a particularly good idea.

It’s nice for the movie, though. Rome is a fine location for any film, even if most of The Rite is probably shot in studios in Budapest. At the Vatican the young priest makes two friends: a beautiful journalist played by Alice Braga (given nothing to do, and a subplot about her and the young priest being attracted to each other fizzles out), and an old priest played by Anthony Hopkins.

Together Hopkins and O’Donoghue perform the rite of exorcism on a young girl; the process is long and takes weeks or months, and her symptoms seem to the young priest to be signs of mental illness. Later he sees Hopkins faking symptoms of a demonic presence in order to bring comfort to a family. But the skepticism he has becomes thinner as stranger and stranger things start happening, and as it starts to seem as if the demon possessing the young girl has it out personally for the two priests.

There’s good stuff in here - the battle between skepticism and belief is interesting, and the later elements of demonic activity are presented as suitably surreal and odd; ‘real life’ demonic incidents don’t usually follow haunted house rules but tend to be more head scratching and bizarre, and The Rite gets that.

It’s just everything else that The Rite doesn’t quite get. O’Donoghue seems like he was cast because he looks like a cuter, less rough Jason Miller; the character and his personal demons are the center of the film, but the actor is unable to carry the weight. Hopkins, meanwhile, is just hamming it up, going big and broad and having the time of his life. There are events in the final act that let him go even further over the top - at one point he calls O’Donoghue ‘kissy lips,’ the weirdest insult to ever make it out of the 40s - and he’s fun to watch, even if his craziness unbalances an already unbalanced film even more.

The movie is really hemmed in by the PG-13; it’s just weird to have the devil spitting toned down expletives at people - some things just cry out for a good f-bomb. This is one of them. But that’s the only place the film needed an R, because director Mikael Håfström understands that unsettling and chilling are better than gory or extreme. Unfortunately he just can’t quite get there; The Rite is often lovely and atmospheric, and it has scenes that probably were, on paper, tense and scary, but very few of them actually work

The film’s not perfect but it has an ambition to it. The Rite doesn’t just want to make you jump, it’s looking to send you home unsettled. I don’t think it succeeds, but the attempt is admirable. It’s a horror movie with deeper spiritual and existential concepts on its mind, and I think that’s something to be applauded. Now if they can just make one like this, but better…