More suited to Sunday-school sermonizing than supernatural cinema, The Rite is a cautionary exorcism outing that seems to be targeting doubters in the theaters rather than those on the screen. Closer to documentary in its approach than make-believe mysticism, The Rite presumptuously intrudes into nonbeliever comfort zones, and is pretty much an alarmist downer following in the cloven footsteps of The DaVinci Code.
Pronouncing right away its more serious than imaginative intent, The Rite solemnly declares that what you are about to behold is based on true events. I’m not sure whether this is meant to keep unfocused viewers in line, or intimidate movie critics into dispensing glowing reviews in order to ward Lucifer away, or maybe a bit of both.
In any case, the story begins at a seriously creepy funeral home, where Dad the mortician (Rutger Hauer) tends to the dead and paints the fingernails of female corpses bright red, while his mute and traumatized son Michael looks on. Years later, Michael (Colin O’Donoghue) is an aspiring priest at a seminary school, who disappoints his father by not following him in the embalming biz. But when Michael begins to doubt his own faith and decides to drop out, his theological mentor (Toby Jones) knows just the cure…packing him off to Rome to take exorcism classes at the Vatican. Huh?
When Michael ruffles feathers at the school by insisting that those who show up for treatment are badly in need of a shrink rather than an exorcism, he’s assigned as an apprentice to Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), an eccentric Welsh exorcist. Father Lucas scolds his intern—and by extension the audience—inferring that opting to not believe in the devil will not protect the young man.
And Michael is soon witness to unexplained frightening episodes of demonic possession exhibited by afflicted subjects seeking help from Father Lucas, including hokey stuff like suspect felines, a satanic mule, and armies of invading locusts that seem like they may have escaped from Geico commercials. And eventually the unfortunate exorcist is himself possessed.
Directed by Mikael Håfström (1408), scripted by Michael Petroni (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) and based on the book written by Matt Baglio about Chicago exorcist Father Gary Thomas, The Rite stirs up sufficiently ominous occult atmosphere, which would have worked to hyper-chilling effect, had the production just not have taken itself so seriously. And also perhaps had the audience not been made to feel like they’re the ones who’ve just been exorcised, as they depart the theater looking over their shoulders.