Contrary to the expectations being whipped up by the film's utterly deceptive ad campaign, this is not a supernatural thriller, but rather a courtroom drama in which the course of events surrounding the titular exorcism have already been established. Young Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), an otherwise sweet and virtuous girl from a good Catholic family, is dead after an exorcism by the family's parish priest (Tom Wilkinson) fails to purge the demons that increasingly seemed to take hold of her since she departed for college.
The question here is whether or not the priest, Father Moore, is in any way responsible for her death. Authorities say yes and bring the matter to trial, where the issue becomes as much about the veracity of demonic possession as about Moore's culpability. Ironically, the prosecuting attorney (Campbell Scott) is a Bible-believing churchgoer, whereas Moore's attorney (Laura Linney) is a confessed agnostic.
Courtroom dramas typically provide little narrative wiggle-room with which to do anything remarkable, but that doesn't stop debut director Scott Derrickson -- who wrote the script with Paul Harris Boardman -- from trying his level best to inject a few thrills between the seams. This mostly consists of flashbacks detailing the progression of Emily's possession mixed in with the creepy things that keep happening to Linney as she promotes the possibility that Emily was, in fact, possessed and not, as the prosecution alleges, mentally ill.
It's a potentially interesting idea, using the formula to put faith itself on trial, but Derrickson and Boardman never really let the intellectual aspects of the story manifest themselves. From their point of view, Emily's possession is never in question, so the conundrum on which the trial is predicated seems contrived from the start. Apart from some good acting -- Linney in particular -- there's nothing in the film that rises above the level of a very average television movie. The old "based on a true story" lure should help earn the film some decent opening figures, but word of mouth seems sure to kill the picture off well before Halloween. Starring Jennifer Carpenter, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Colm Feore and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Paul Harris Boardman, Tripp Vinson and Beau Flynn. A Columbia release. Drama/Thriller. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing image. Running time: 114 min