What Possessed Them?

Anthony Hopkins is great in 'The Rite'; unfortunately, the filmmakers get in his way

There have been a lot of movies about demon possessions and exorcisms in recent years—and The Rite might be the best of that bunch.

But that doesn't mean the movie is all that good. It can't hold an altar candle to The Exorcist or The Evil Dead, but it is better than trash like The Last Exorcism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Paranormal Activity 2 and Say, Bill, Do You Think Your Hamster Be Possessed? 'Cause He Just Ate My Foot!

Perhaps the only reason the nonsense in The Rite isn't as terrible as it could be is the presence of Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas Trevant, a man who has performed so many exorcisms that it has become a semi-casual ritual. He'll even interrupt a demon expulsion at the height of its frothing violence to take a phone call or make an inappropriate wisecrack. The job is old hat to him; he's almost bored.

This changes when one of those pesky demons—the Devil himself—decides Trevant would make a nice host. Like a doctor catching a cold when some brat sneezes in his face, Trevant becomes a victim of his own risky trade.

The marketing for this movie leaves no surprise as to what happens with Trevant. That, in fact, is the draw of The Rite—the chance to see a terrific actor like Hopkins act all nutty and eccentric, something he has always done well.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't focus nearly enough of its energy and time on the Hopkins possession. Colin O'Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a—wait for it!—priest questioning his faith; he's not sure if he'd rather go off and have sex and stuff. He winds up becoming an exorcist, and Father Trevant, stationed in Italy just down the block from the Vatican, is his tutor. The big question is whether or not Michael will get enough exorcist chops in time to save his teacher.

O'Donoghue is rather dull in the role, and I found myself just wanting to see more Hopkins insanity. The movie goes to a sinisterly enjoyable place at certain moments, like when Hopkins slaps a little girl who wants to have her dolly blessed. Another moment, when he's staring at himself while shaving—knowing that there is a stranger staring back—is genuinely scary.

As for the final exorcism scene, much effort is given to making Hopkins look yucky, with veins popping out all over his face and his skin severely discolored. All of these post-production and makeup effects seem unnecessary and actually take away from the moment. Director Mikael Håfström would've been wise to tone things down a bit, and just let his actor do the work. Instead, he goes for cheap thrills, and Hopkins has to blast his acting through the digital makeup.

In supporting roles, Toby Jones is very good in early scenes as a priest with a nicotine addiction who can't cross a street without getting somebody killed. Rutger Hauer makes the most of every moment onscreen as Michael's dad, a mortician about whom I wanted to know more. The two are good enough that their characters and back-stories may deserve their own movies.

Too bad things go from great to gimmicky with Hopkins in the end. It's not his fault; blame those who thought this great actor wasn't capable of pulling off a decent demon possession without distracting digital help. The Rite, by messing with Hopkins' face and voice, takes two of his great tools away, and the film suffers for it.