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The Rite

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'The Rite' still
Released on Friday, Feb 25 2011

Blame it on William Friedkin, director of horror classic The Exorcist; for since his tale of demonic possession stormed the box office in the early '70s - leaving a trail of traumatised cinemagoers in its wake - Hollywood has desperately strived to replicate its success. Few have gotten near it, and it could be argued that none have surpassed The Exorcist's eerie mood and fingernails-digging-into-armrests tension. Step forward the latest pretender to the crown - Anthony Hopkins's The Rite. It's a movie eager to distance itself from Friedkin's legendary chiller, yet the similarities are strikingly clear and only leave The Rite looking like a pale imitation of its formidable ancestor.

Michael Kovak's (Colin O'Donaghue) strained bond with his father (Rutger Hauer) and lack of joy working in a mortuary prompts him to enter a seminary school. As graduation draws closer, he hands over his resignation to his superior Father Matthew (Toby Jones), claiming a lack of faith. Father Matthew has other ideas, though, and dispatches Kovak to Italy to study exorcism with the promise that his hefty student loan will be wiped out. "Two months in Rome - how bad can that be?" Father Matthew tells him ominously. From there, the central relationship between Kovak's uncertain man of God and the older Father Lucas (Hopkins), an expert in banishing demons, provides the central dynamic for director Mikael Håfström's film.

It takes half-an-hour to bring Hopkins into the fold, and it's only then that the film begins to get anywhere near interesting. Håfström is almost ashamed to embrace the horror genre, instead opting to mute the early scenes of exorcism. "What did you expect? Spinning heads and pea soup?" Father Lucas says, acknowledging the visceral purgings performed by Max von Sydow's Father Merrin. This keenness to stick to 'reality' (The Rite is "suggested" by Matt Baglio's book The Rite: The Making Of A Modern Exorcist) is a fresh approach, but also one that softens this movie as a genuine Saturday night shocker. When the jumps do turn up they're the tap-on-the-shoulder "boo!" kind that arrive without any suspenseful build-up. The Rite is caught between drama and horror, yet fails to succeed in either territory.

O'Donaghue, in his first lead movie role, is tasked with carrying the film but he's something of an empty vessel, only sparking into life when he's got Hopkins to joust against. Hopkins dials into some of that Hannibal Lector madness in the finale, providing a route for Kovak to reaffirm his faith. The venerable screen icon almost salvages the movie completely with his scenery-chomping performance, yet lumbered with an unimaginative script and an atmosphere that never manages to trigger goosebumps, it's always an uphill struggle to become a believer in The Rite.


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