Father Moore (Wilkinson), a small-town priest, is on trial for the negligent homicide of a young woman (Carpenter) who died in his care during an exorcism. Defending him is Erin Bruner (Linney), an atheist lawyer who comes to doubt her own beliefs as the spooky evidence mounts up.
Laura Linney shouldn’t really be in Emily Rose — or at least, she should only be in its courtroom-based half. She doesn’t do schlocky horror, she does proper stuff with serious haircuts that gets you Oscar nominations. So her presence in this (possibly) supernatural thriller points to the fact this is more than a grip-your-armrest, knock-over-your-snacks chiller.
If director and co-screenwriter Scott Derrickson makes one great decision in his execution of this strange legal-horror hybrid, it’s to never come down on a definitive side of the central argument that his movie presents: was Emily Rose, based on a real-life girl, really possessed by demons, or was her terrifying behaviour the result of a serious medical condition? We see relatively little of the actual story of Emily (ferociously played by newcomer Carpenter, with a hell of a set of lungs), instead reliving her story through the court case that followed when police decided Emily’s death was down to Father Moore’s negligence in not seeking medical help for his charge.
Linney’s naturally fierce — but in a cuddly way — screen presence clutches the viewer as she fights for the freedom of a man who represents beliefs she doesn’t hold, but gradually opens up to the possibility that darker forces may be at work. A lesser actress might have succumbed to the desire to play the spooky moments with horror-movie fright, but Linney remains consistently a defence lawyer who happens to be experiencing some freaky shit. You’re never forced to take a particular viewpoint (Campbell Scott provides stoic counterpoint as the prosecution) which makes this much more of a brainteaser than it could have been.
But for all its cleverness, Emily Rose does have its hokey moments. The explanation of religious history and symbolism is, at times, clunky, despite Wilkinson’s solid performance, and incidents like glasses smashing when things get demonic and the demise of witnesses feel like easy scares from a lesser film. Carpenter possesses the flashback scenes with unsettling intensity, and there will be times when fainter viewers will be hiding in their popcorn, but there are rarely moments of absolute terror — rather of frequent disquiet.
Viewed as a horror movie, Emily Rose isnt much scarier than the average, but combined with intelligent and balanced courtroom drama it has more to offer than your usual big-lunged, big-breasted screamer.