There’s some kind of strange physics going on in The Rite. Not in the sense that it’s a movie about demonic possession, and therefore necessarily inclined to skirt natural laws, although that’s true too. No, this is something to do with the mechanics of star power. This is a film that takes Anthony Hopkins, Rutger Hauer and Ciarán Hinds, three eminently watchable actors, and somehow combines them in a way that renders them all completely boring. How does a reliable trifecta of charisma just spontaneously cancel itself out? This truly is the Devil’s work.
Some background, for what it’s worth. Listless, swarthy young Catholic Michael Kovak (newcomer Colin O’Donoghue) grew up in the family funeral home, somewhere in suburban America. He had Hauer for a dad and chores that included embalming mom. Eventually, he had to choose between seminary school and continuing in his father’s line. Having opted for the former, Michael now remains only ambivalently religious, and apparently no amount of God’s-eye views of raindrops falling on portentous traffic-accident casualties can change that.
Hannibal Lectern: Anthony Hopkins plays a holy man noted for performing thousands of exorcisms. He enlists the help of an ambivalent young priest to overcome an evil greater than he’s ever encountered.
Eventually Michael’s mentor (Toby Jones, also mysteriously boring) refers him to a covert exorcism course at the Vatican, whose teacher (Hinds), when not giving slickly infernal multimedia presentations, further refers him to a Jesuit exorcist (Hopkins) known around town for competent demon-expunging house calls. At first the old man’s approach seems cursory, with cell phone calls taken mid-ritual while his subject, a sultry pregnant teenager, goes through some low-grade cataleptic contortions. “What did you expect?” he asks Michael afterward. “Spinning heads? Pea soup?”
You needn’t be a conflicted priest to want to rule out mental illness before treating someone for possession. But soon enough the same girl is coughing up nails and secret details of Michael’s family history, a journalist (Alice Braga) is asking questions, O’Donoghue is becoming laughably shrieky and Hopkins is seeming ready again for retirement.
“Inspired by true events” seems like a poor choice of words here, given the permanent torpor that settles in early on, implying something like an opposite of inspiration. Yet Michael Petroni’s script, “suggested by the book by” journalist Matt Baglio, strives to power itself by putting things archly. Obviously this is not a holy power.
The Rite is about a test of faith, and it is one. It gets steadily worse, encouraging its audience to give up. Its director is Mikael Håfström, who is best known for the 2007 supernatural thriller 1408, from the Stephen King story, but also has made movies with such titles as Vendetta, Evil, Drowning Ghost and Days Like This. That last one might sound a little like a buzzkill in context, with its faint whiff of resignation to drudgery, but in this regard it does set a realistic expectation for The Rite.