No, it’s not good, and, no, I’m not recommending The Rite, but I can’t bring myself to actually dislike a movie that includes Satan’s mule. Now, had it been a talking mule, I might have been persuaded to recommend the film. But since the death of Chill Wills, I guess mule voice actors have become scarce, so they opted for a silent approach. Granted, this is a very serious mule—especially with his CGI glowing-red eyes—but it’s not enough. And it’s a real downer when the film’s not-all-that-big climax climaxes before the beast in question kicks down the door to lend the demon a hoof. All this probably gives you a fair indication of the sort of movie we’re dealing with here.
The movie gives Anthony Hopkins top billing as cantankerous old exorcist Father Lucas Trevant, but the real star is Irish TV actor Colin O’Donoghue as Michael Kovak, a seminary student with faith issues. Unfortunately, the two are an uneven match. While Hopkins is having a lot of fun chewing the scenery (to prove it, he pukes up nails at one point), O’Donoghue has about one more expression than the mule—and his eyes don’t glow, so it’s a wash. It doesn’t help our lead that he’s also up against Ciaran Hinds, Alice Braga, Toby Jones, and Rutger Hauer.
Anyhow, the situation is Religious Horror 101, or Exorcist Lite, if you prefer. You see, young Kovak—in order to get out of the family mortuary biz (when your father is Rutger Hauer, such a trade is perhaps expected)—has opted to take advantage of a free education into the priesthood from the Jesuits. His plan is to bail on them before taking his vows, but after getting his degree, of course. Ah, but wily old Father Matthew (Toby Jones) blackmails Michael into going to exorcist school in Rome by threatening to convert his free education into $100,000 worth of student loans. Seems there’s a great need for exorcists these days and Fr. Matthew thinks Michael has what it takes—even though the lad doesn’t believe in demonic possession.
Well, since Fr. Matthew’s old seminary buddy Fr. Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) isn’t getting very far with Michael, he sends him to the craftiest old exorcist of them all, Fr. Lucas, to cure his unbelief. Fr. Lucas is, of course, what you call, unorthodox, which means it’s a showy role tailored for a showy actor. The old eccentric is curmudgeonly and matter of fact (“What did you expect? Spinning heads and pea soup?”), but he’s a handy man with the holy water—even if he doesn’t bother turning off his cell phone during exorcisms. He’s also just the man to cure Michael’s disbelief, of course, but it takes good deal of unfortunately not-very-impressive demon stuff—including Satan’s mule—before Michael turns all Bert Lahr and confesses, “I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do.”
The fact is that there’s nothing all that wrong with The Rite. It’s simply that it’s, well, just sort of there. Apart from the mule, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen done before and that you haven’t seen done better. It all has that recycled feel to it—the kind that gives you the sense that you almost must be watching a movie you’ve seen before. The biggest problem, I think, is that it it takes itself too seriously and thinks the audience is going to take it seriously, too. I guess if you already buy into the whole exorcism idea that might be barely possible, but it otherwise isn’t all that persuasive. That its biggest scene falls with a dull thud—possibly in the name of “realism”—pretty much cooks its goose. The additional fact that the scene is a weak-tea rehash of the finale of The Exorcist III (1990) only proves—if proof were needed—that Colin Donoghue is no George C. Scott. There are worse ways to kill an evening of moviegoing, sure, but there are better ones, too. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images, and language including sexual references.