What in God’s name is Anthony Hopkins doing in The Rite? If this preposterous film is to be believed, the devil made him do it.
Directed by Mikael Håfström (1408), The Rite is a heavy-handed, far-fetched theological thriller that’s too inadvertently funny to be scary. Michael Kovak (Irish actor Colin O’Donoghue in his feature film debut) is a mortician-cum-seminary student with dead-mommy issues (I know, I know–that old cliché!) who’s not really drinking the Jesus juice. But no sooner does he tender his resignation to the Father Superior (the great British actor Toby Jones, in a role only slightly less embarrassing than serving as the voice of Dobby the house elf in the Harry Potter films) than he finds himself reciting the last rites to a dying woman who’s been hit by a car. Seeing his natural talent for the priesthood, the Father convinces Michael to travel to Rome, where the Vatican is training exorcists as part of a new initiative (don’t laugh–this actually happened in 2007, prompting Matt Baglio to write the nonfiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, upon which the film is based).
In Rome, Michael lives in Spartan, cross-adorned quarters by night and learns to classify demons by day. His atheist irreverence leads his teacher to refer him to a priest outside of the Vatican, Father Lucas (Mr. Hopkins), to see exorcism in action. From the first moment he appears onscreen, Mr. Hopkins wears a puzzled, slightly bemused expression, as if he can’t figure out what he’s doing in this movie, either. Nonetheless, he soldiers on, even when the script forces him to scream “Cool! Whatever, dude!” in the voice of Satan. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Lucas performs an exorcism on a pregnant teenager while his new protégé watches, but Michael, ever the realist, is convinced that the girl is simply in need of a good shrink, seeing as her own father raped and impregnated her. The next time they see her, however, her demon speaks directly to Michael (the transformation from human to demon involves a lot of knuckle-cracking, floor-scratching and the appearance of blue veins on the face–still not nearly as scary as Linda Blair’s iconic possession in The Exorcist). Then Lucas brings Michael to see a young boy who has dreams of a mule demon-and horseshoe-shaped wounds on his chest and back to prove it. This time, Lucas does an exorcism not the boy but on his pillow, pulling out a small frog (the devil) that he swiftly incinerates. Michael is just starting to abandon his devotion to pesky science when he spots a fountain full of similar frogs near Lucas’ house–has it all been a trick, he wonders?
The film’s answer is no, but the silly smoke and mirrors it employs to make its point prove otherwise. Voices start talking out of nowhere. Michael starts having flashbacks to his mother’s funeral, and then visions of-among other things–the heavily manicured hand of Beelzebub. When he engages in a staring contest with a red-eyed horse, it’s all you can do not to burst out laughing. Mr. O’Donoghue is a handsome and capable enough actor (and I must say he nails the American accent), but the role of Michael is no fun. As the film progresses, you get the sneaking suspicion that it’ll all come down to a science-versus-religion climax–which, unfortunately, it does. (What, was this all one big episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska?)
The bottom line is, whether you worship God, Satan, Xenu or Ron Paul, The Rite gets it wrong. Save your money and watch something truly terrifying–like Teen Mom–instead.
Running time 113 minutes
Written by Michael Petroni
Directed by Mikael Håfström
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga