The small town in which The Rite opens looks like the Lowell of The Fighter—that is, like no one has invested in it (and, in particular, its signage) since 1973. That’s the year at which the movie feels frozen in both aesthetic and essence: it’s the year The Exorcist opened, and the year at which The Rite would like exorcism movies to have stopped being made.
In an essay I wrote this summer, “The Evolution of the Exorcism Movie,” I suggested a continuum for parsing an exorcism-movie’s politics, with the Catholic conservatism of Friedkin-Blatty’s ur-text at one end (in which the Devil is a horned monster from Hell), and the psychological revisionism of the 2006 German movie Requiem at the other (in which “evil,” if it even exists, is more amorphous). Thanks to that import, which posits a young girl’s “possession” as more likely an amalgam of epilepsy and psychosis, the exorcism movie can no longer ignore or quickly dismiss the tension between the spiritual and the medical, between demons and psychosis. The last major exorcism movie, August’s The Last Exorcism, left the question as to the source of its evil—hell-spawn or nervous breakdown?—ambiguous until its final reel. I wrote that, though that reel felt disappointingly literal, I was pleased that the filmmakers “went farther than any other…yet in moving the exorcism movie away from proselytizing for Catholicism and toward a more complex vision of human suffering. Perhaps the next exorcism movie won’t conclude so cravenly.” But The Rite not only concludes cravenly, it opens cravenly, and stays craven in between. It doesn’t just take a step back—it takes ten.
The film’s press materials insist that whether possession is real remains ambiguous, but the movie itself doesn’t. It pretends to investigate the tension—”there’s a lot of interest in this,” the movie’s would-be love interest (!) says, “a lot of debate”—but stacks the deck well in advance; for it, faithlessness (a.k.a. a faith in science) is a conspicuous straw man. Satan is real, make no mistake (and it’s hard to do so when the movie opens with a Pope John Paul quote about the Devil’s presence in the modern world—he would know!)
As in any standard exorcism movie, Lucifer manifests himself in ashen and bruised women who writhe and contort while spitting out vulgarities. (The Evil One must also have a hand in those McCafe product placements?) The movie adores the genre’s iconography—adopting another’s groundbreaking imagery and turning it into cliche, like a direct-to-DVD rip-off—but also couches it in a fashionable cynicism. After Anthony Hopkins, playing an old-school exorciser, finishes one unspectacular exorcism, his tutee expresses skepticism. “What did you expect?” Hopkins asks. “Pea soup?” (Because, ha, the vomit here is actually blood, with iron nails for chunks.) The movie is full of these Shrek-level subversions of established tropes: during that same exorcism session, Hopkins stops to answer his cell phone.
But The Rite doesn’t actually take matters of faith as lightly as Hopkins’ flippancy would suggest. It firmly defends belief, and argues that it plays a necessary role in vanquishing wickedness. But isn’t it strange that such a conservative movie also absolves all sinners of personal responsibility? If we believe in this movie’s theology, none of us are culpable for what we do in our lowest moments—those actions, like fathers raping daughters, result from an external, possessive evil that’s easy to overcome. You just gotta believe.