The Rite is the latest of at least a dozen widely released American movies in half as many years with demonic possession as a major plot point. This doesn't mean the subject is wrung out — its continuing resonance with audiences hasn't been effaced by secular pop psychology or modernization within the church. It does mean, though, that any new attempt must come with a hook.
For one: Prefaced with a quote from Pope John Paul II, The Rite, set in a specifically Catholic milieu, courts believers. Also, in the character of Father Lucas, it introduces the exorcist as a workaday, house-calls healer. As Lucas, Anthony Hopkins is disarmingly distracted, softly authoritative, and given to prancing when the role takes a bipolar turn. "What'd you expect? Spinning heads, pea soup?" he asks a novice, young Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), who's just witnessed Lucas' offhand bedside manner — he breaks from casting out demons to take a phone call — and the priest's defiance of evil, grown almost into a casual rivalry through the years.
The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue, Alice Braga, and Rutger Hauer. Directed by Mikael Hfstrm. Written by Michael Petroni. 112 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Michael, whose initiation into exorcism propels the plot, is introduced working in his family's mortuary in a small-town, dead-end America shown in a few shorthand shots. Needing a ticket out, he chooses seminary school, despite having no apparent surplus of faith or zeal. Still not having developed the required vocational feeling four years later, he's ready to leave but is talked into visiting Rome for a trial run in an exorcist-training program. Here, Michael begins his apprenticeship to Lucas, a Welsh Jesuit tending to the daily exorcism needs of Roman families. Watching Lucas on his rounds, Michael clings to his doubt, even when viewing a contorted patient who plays a game of Twister without the mat, becomes fluently profane in foreign tongues, and coughs up iron nails.
As Michael clings to his skepticism before manifestations of the inexplicable, The Rite never brings the viewer onto his seesaw of doubt — disorientation that sustained The Last Exorcism's suspense. Michael's own "demons" are suggested via flashbacks of a walking-dead father (Rutger Hauer), a literally dead mother, and the undertaker's slab. Michael is surrounded by corpses — not just in his family's mortuary but also in a freak car accident he witnesses — but these are audience-goosing shocks, illuminating no ideas on the hereafter, divine causality, or any detail of sinister ambiguity in O'Donoghue's featureless performance. Michael's motivations remain arbitrary and inscrutable, right down to his entry into the seminary. This is brought up by a number of characters, who interpret his implausible career decision as "a sign." It is — of bad writing.