Lit as if doom itself were around the corner (even the daytime street scenes are bedimmed), The Rite is a supernatural thriller about God and the Devil and the demonic possession of our souls.
It begins in a small town near Chicago, where Rutger Hauer, sallow and sober, is an undertaker busy with the embalming of the dead. It ends in a howling conflagration not far from the Vatican, where a young priest is witness to the wild expulsion of a satanic terror.
In between: crises of faith, a plague of frogs, a red-eyed mule, and "the devil's foot soldiers" hard at work on the innocent men, women, and children of Rome.
Luckily, there's the Welsh Jesuit, Father Lucas Trevant - Anthony Hopkins, effortlessly hammy. He is an exorcist in possession of a certain "knowledge of the unknowable." And he is a multitasker: pausing in the middle of one particularly tricky exorcism to answer his cell phone.
Max Von Sydow he is not.
Inevitably, The Rite will be compared to the 1973 Linda Blair head-spinner The Exorcist. But Father Lucas himself, in a movie meta-moment, cuts such thoughts off at the pass:
"What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?" he quips to the fresh recruit, Michael (Colin O'Donoghue), just graduated from seminary school in America, and now assigned to mentor under this unorthodox fellow in an out-of-the-way quadrant of Rome.
And Michael - the son of the aforementioned mortician, and a sensitive lad who begins to doubt his beliefs as he finishes his theological studies back in Chicago - doesn't know what to make of this business.
Couldn't the pregnant girl rolling her eyes into her skull and spouting things in tongues simply be schizophrenic?
Well, we're going to find out.
Directed by Mikael Håfström (1408, Derailed) and inspired by Matt Baglio's nonfiction book, in which the author describes the training of a modern-day Catholic exorcist, The Rite has a certain classy gravity in its early stages. O'Donoghue, an Irish actor who plays American convincingly, has a brooding presence, and Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, and Alice Braga (as a journalist hanging around the Vatican) make their time on screen matter.
But as Michael gets drawn deeper into Father Lucas' insular world, as the soundtrack starts to susurrate with creepy whispers and ominous clangs, and as Hopkins himself goes wild-eyed and FX-ed with popping veins, The Rite gives up on asking us to take it seriously.
"Keep fighting the good fight," Father Lucas tells his protege. Please, no sequels!EndText