Bold performances, disappointing plot

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By Tressa Eckermann, Senior Staff Writer

Twenty years ago, Sir Anthony Hopkins played Dr. Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.” It turned into one of the defining roles of his long, illustrious career and still terrifies viewers. In his new film “The Rite,” Hopkins turns in a typically strong performance, but really it’s just a riff on reliable old Hannibal the Cannibal.

The film centers on Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a young man who runs from his oppressive home and morbid father, who also happens to be a mortician.

“We serve the dead but we don’t talk about them – it brings bad things,” his father says early in the movie.

“We live in a house with dead people, how much worse can it get?” Michael counters. Well, it can, and it does.

He escapes to become a priest.  As he puts it, “In my family, either you become a priest or a mortician.” Four years later, Kovak is close to finishing his schooling but we learn that he has had a loss of faith, and is close to pulling the plug on his career. His mentor asks him to go to Rome to take a course on exorcism. “Why would you want me? I don’t know what I believe in,” Kovak asks. “Two months in Rome, how bad can it be?” his mentor responds.

So they ship him off, and grows, he is sent to meet Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), an unconventional priest who has performed countless exorcisms. He’s impatient, witty and a bit of a curmudgeon. His character provides a few of the only laughs in the film. During the middle of an exorcism, Lucas actually stops to answer his cell phone.

The biggest problem with the movie is the pacing. It slows everything down. Every time I got close to being interested or pulled into the story, there was some heavy-handed, long-winded speech, plopped down in the middle of an intense scene that stops everything cold. The perfect example is the climax of the film. Just as it starts to get interesting and intense, Michael takes a break to give a speech about how his faith isn’t strong. It’s like the world’s biggest speed bump.

The atmosphere is dark and heavy, but not in a good and engaging way. I’d equate it with being stuck in a dark, cramped room – completely unpleasant, alarming and the only thing you want to do is search for an exit.

It’s a jumbled mess that has too many false starts, which makes suspension of disbelief nearly impossible. By the time a red-eyed, possessed mule showed up, I was reminded of that scene in Sam Raimi’s 2009 film “Drag Me to Hell.” I almost wish Raimi had directed this movie – it would have been a lot more fun.

One thing that the movie tries very hard to do is start a theological debate about the fight between good and evil. And it has it’s strengths in that department. As Michael continuously questions his faith, he actually finds the strength to defeat the evil he’s been confronted with. It’s really the only thing of substance in the movie.

I’ll admit, I jumped once or twice, but after awhile all the questions and mysteries got tiresome. Is Michael crazy? Is Lucas possessed? There’s nothing that the filmmakers give you to keep you interested for more than a few minutes.

No one plays evil or devilish quite like Hopkins, but all the glee and terror of his previous work is absent in this movie. You can’t really blame the actors, though. They weren’t given much to work with.

O’Donoghue is the real wonder here.  “The Rite” is his first film and he goes head to head with Hopkins.  His whispering, menacing performance goes over very well. I believe he could carry a genuinely good movie.

He’s an exceptionally handsome man, and his soft and dark attractiveness could carry him a long way, but there’s just not much for him to do here besides look pretty and pensive at the same time. Once or twice I actually thought I would rather sit in a dark theater watching O’Donoghue do nothing. He probably would have been more interesting than the dreadfully whiney character he’d been forced to play.

But despite all the good performances, it’s still the pacing that remains the biggest road block for the movie. Everything feels forced. It tries to be scary, so it hits you over the head with the ‘fear.’ It tries to be funny, so it stops dead in its tracks, points the finger at the audience and says “you better laugh, because this next joke? It’s gonna be a good one.”

The tagline of the film is “what do you believe?” I believe that Hopkins and O’Donoghue should have been placed in a much different, much better movie that’s at least deserving of their talents.

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