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The Rite stands as proof of what just one perfectly cast major role can do to elevate the quality of the whole. Warner Bros.’ just-released based-on-truth exorcism movie is a mundane, predictable affair in just about every way. The story and dialogue are rote, the performances (for the most part) are wooden and unmemorable… even the score leaves a bad taste, an uninteresting, overly dramatic collection of orchestral numbers that don’t quite fit what you’re seeing unfold on the screen.
And then there’s Anthony Hopkins doing his creepy Anthony Hopkins thing, and everything gets better immediately.
The story starts out feeling almost like a religion-infused Point of No Return, with Colin O’Donoghue’s Michaek Kovak being offered the opportunity to join a secret Vatican initiative to train up some new exorcists after he decides to leave the seminary he’s attending. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if he said no, so Kovak flies off to Rome to learn all about the practice of banishing demons. He was a problem student back home, always asking questions regarding the nature of faith, and he brings those doubts with him overseas. Kovak’s professor, Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), decides the more intensive, one-on-one training is in order, so he sends the young man off to learn under the tutelage of Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a practicing exorcist with a seemingly endless roster of clients. Who knew demon possession was such a big deal in Italy?
Everything unfolds from there the way you’d expect it to. Kovak gets his training from Trevant and he sees things, hears things that make him begin to doubt his own lack of faith. Just when it seems he might actually be catching on, tragedy occurs. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen any trailers or TV spots. Trevant, stricken with grief, himself falls prey to a roving demon. With no one around to help him other than a sexy classmate — an embedded reporter rather than a chaste nun, so you can ask yourself “will they or won’t they?” — Kovak is forced to become the master himself as he attempts to banish a demon from the mind of one of the foremost possession experts on the planet. And maybe he’ll learn a thing or two about himself in the process as well.
If you’re a fan of movies, you’ll see every beat coming ten steps early and you’ll probably roll your eyes at least once. O’Donoghue’s character bears witness to some freaky happenings, but he is steadfast in his one-dimensional questioning of faith. Even when the weird stuff starts to center itself on him — wait, is he the one that’s possessed?! — his emotional response is more fitting for someone who’s just discovered that $20 is missing from their wallet. Aw shucks, now let’s move on.
Take all of this on its own, and The Rite is not a very welcoming proposition. Thankfully, there’s one more piece to this puzzle and it miraculously manages to hold everything together. Anthony Hopkins proves yet again why he remains one of the most talented actors working today. This isn’t a nuanced role for him at all; Trevant is very much the gruff, old teacher who’s been around the block hundreds of times and learned where every bully waits in ambush. The actor embraces it with his whole heart however and he’s clearly having a blast.
Before Trevant is possessed in the second half of the film, Hopkins turns in his best Obi-Wan Kenobi. His wit is quick and fiery. His lessons are always to the point and backed up by object examples. He’s a master of his spooky trade, and it’s a fact that is made abundantly clear.
As entertaining as it is to watch him in the early going, the fun really starts once the demon gets inside Trevant’s head. It is here that we see Hopkins channeling a little bit of his old Hannibal Lecter role. It’s a subtle creepiness, one shows itself in sudden, wild outbursts. Like when he smacks a little girl across the face hard enough to lay her out. Oh yes, that happens. It is utterly ridiculous and all the more entertaining for it.
Credit too to Mikael Hafstrom for taking Michael Petroni’s ho-hum script and applying some craft to the proceedings. The 1408 director knows how to do creepy. The Rite doesn’t quite bring the scares the way that earlier John Cusack-starring Stephen King adaptation does, but he puts Hopkins to good use throughout and he manages to create some unsettling moments even when the veteran actor isn’t around to grab your attention.
The Rite isn’t awesome. That’s just a fact. It is undeniably fun to watch however, and moreso if you’re already a fan of Hopkins’ creepier roles. It is an entirely conventional horror/thriller in every way, anchored by a single performance which serves to justify the whole outing. In the grand pantheon of films about demonic possession, this is no The Exorcist. It’s not even The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But it is Anthony Hopkins decking a pre-teen girl in broad daylight. That’s got to count for something, right?