The Rite is a prime case of a film without endurance. While the first half is often strong, intriguing, and full of humor, the movie stumbles and lurches through the finish. The exorcism genre has seen resurgence of late, but not many films in that line can boast about Anthony Hopkins playing a wily, unconventional exorcist. Unfortunately, the perfect casting of Hopkins is spoiled with the uneven tone. When director Mikael Håfström finally tries to tie up the loose ends in the film, it gives in to an unenthusiastic finale that feels rushed and diluted. The idea of possession versus dementia has been done before–with satisfying results–but here it feels mishandled. If coughing up a handful of iron spikes doesn’t convince someone, you know there isn’t much hope.
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) is a skeptic looking to escape from the mortician family career but has limited funds. Choosing to attend seminary school with the intention of dropping out before going through with priesthood seems like a rash decision, but he goes for it anyways. Right before his dine and dash education is complete, he is given the opportunity to attend a new program the Vatican has recently opened to train exorcists–the ultimate unbeliever-buster Christianity has. But hey, it’s Rome. How bad can it be? When Michael is tasked to study under the unconventional and troubled exorcist, Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), his skepticism is pushed to the edge. As the exorcisms become increasingly extreme, he finds himself an unwilling pawn in a battle between good and evil.
Working off of a script by Michael Petroni that is based on a book by Matt Baglio, Håfström gives the fine gloss one would expect of a Hollywood film. The use of the Vatican City setting provides intrigue, but The Rite confines it to a springboard for the adventure. As the film continues, we become privy to the predictable foreshadowing as the signs of demonic possession are given in a class led by Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds), including a tremor in a limb. But just as the adventure seems to be stalling, Father Lucas is introduced and we are reeled back in.
Father Lucas is troubled by his years of exorcisms. Instead of a quick battle with a demon, exorcisms are described as continual wars that ratchet up in intensity over months. But don’t expect spinning heads or pea soup, Father Lucas quips. Yet, as the events become convincing for the audience, including a subject revealing secrets about Michael’s past, he remains steadfast in his disbelief. That theme is stretched beyond its limit as he continually disregards events that he simply cannot explain, and throws faulty logic at the few he challenges as psychotic behavior. When he finally starts to come around, it feels unnaturally sudden.
While the finale is fumbled and the themes are underutilized, the supporting cast provides one redeeming quality. Familiar faces like Hinds and Rutger Hauer populate the background and give their all to their shamefully small roles. Meanwhile, Hopkins continually shines even when the film is falling down around him. His witty banter as Father Lucas is smooth and effortless, while the dry humor is a continual home run with the audience. He is casual about the exorcism procedures, and his lackadaisical approach provides unexpected laughs. He even gets to stretch his creepy demeanor, though that, like the supporting cast, is criminally underused. Although Hopkins manages to turn in an intriguing and creative performance, the film focuses on O’Donoghue’s character and suffers for it. A bland and often uninteresting main character can crack the foundations of the best films–which no one would mistake The Rite. The transformation of Michael has to have authenticity, but comes off as harried. Even with a more capable actor in the role of Michael, it’s hard to say if the film would have been saved.
As it stands, The Rite throws everything it has to keep the audience interested in the beginning but leaves little to satisfy as it races towards the finish. Exorcisms have built in mystery and the film attempts to throw in new wrinkles with mixed results. This sub-genre rarely finds a supporting cast of this caliber, which is all the more frustrating when the pieces don’t combine to form something more worthwhile. January is often a wasteland for films that just can’t seem to pull it together despite solid ingredients; The Rite is no exception. The film opens everywhere today.