The Rite really wants to get it right.
In some ways, Mikael Håfström's new film reminds me less of recent exorcism films than of the sort of movie that Terence Fisher made for Hammer Films in the late 1950s and 1960s, movies like The Devil Rides Out and the 1958 Dracula. If Father Lucas, an unconventional veteran exorcist working in Rome, had been played by Hammer icon Christopher Lee instead of Anthony Hopkins, he would have been right at home.
On the other hand, Michael Kovak (newcomer Colin O'Donoghue), a doubting seminarian roped into a Vatican-sponsored training initiative for new exorcists, belongs to the postcritical milieu of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Requiem and The Last Exorcism. Michael is among the more thoughtfully skeptical characters in this type of movie, proposing naturalistic explanations for possible supernatural phenomena when he can, and citing other unexplained phenomena when he can't. Still, Michael seems to respect the priesthood more than some of his less troubled classmates; he rolls his eyes at the future clerics in the dorm room across the hall playing violent video games. "Honestly?" he mutters rhetorically, pushing his door closed.
This is not a world in which demons manifest openly or in which sacred objects like crosses or holy water are omnipotent over the forces of darkness. Exorcism in The Rite is a long, drawn-out process that can last for weeks, months or even longer. In that way, among others, The Rite is probably the most sober, realistic treatment of exorcism in Hollywood history. It's also a pretty thoughtful depiction of doubt and faith—one of a tiny number of exorcism films, along with the original Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, that offers a spiritual, even theological take on what most films in the genre treat as mere horror-movie trappings.
Fr. Lucas goes so far as to tweak the godfather of all exorcism movies. "What were you expecting?" he asks Michael after their first go-round with a troubled, very pregnant Italian girl (Marta Gastini). "Spinning heads and pea soup?"
A movie that goes there had better not fall back on the old clichés itself. The Rite is only partially up to its own challenge. There are no spinning heads, but bodies contort in ways that come close, and while there's no pea soup, we do see something even more spectacular vomited up.
The Rite ekes gratuitous creepiness from Michael's background: His father is a mortician, and there are disturbing flashbacks to Michael as a boy helping his obviously troubled father (Rutger Hauer) tend the body of Michael's mother. And there's some unexplained spookiness around a charm bracelet, or a pair of bracelets, linking a body in Michael's father's morgue to one of Fr. Lucas's exorcees. Are the charms occult symbols? Was the woman in the morgue another victim of diabolical influence? Or is it just misdirection, or don't the filmmakers know? The Rite even falls back on that tiredest of clichés, the jump scene that turns out to be only a cat. Honestly?