Anthony Hopkins classes up "The Rite," as you can imagine he would most every situation. But even his otherworldly powers can only make this overly familiar demonic possession thriller engaging for so long.
Despite the ads that would suggest otherwise, Hopkins is actually a supporting player here. The center of the film is Colin O'Donoghue, making his confident, impressive feature debut as Michael Kovak, an aspiring Catholic priest suffering a spiritual crisis.
Following his mother's death, Michael joined his father (Rutger Hauer) in the family mortuary business. Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom ("Evil," "1408") details the painstaking process of cleaning and preparing a body for a funeral with precise, clear-eyed detail, which makes it seem even creepier. Still, Michael is obviously a caring and conscientious young man, and it makes sense that he would be interested in tending to others through the church. Trouble is, he's not sure what he believes.
Michael Petroni's script, "suggested by" a novel that was "inspired by" actual events, is surprisingly reasonable and even-tempered with its discussions about the nature of faith. For a while, it is neither hyperbolic nor preachy, but open to all possibilities and levels of devotion — or lack thereof. All of this intelligent set-up, as well as the moody, atmospheric way Hafstrom takes advantage of locations in Rome and Budapest, make the over-the-top climax feel like even more of a letdown.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Michael doubts himself, but his mentor at the seminary (Toby Jones) sees the potential in him, and sends him off to Rome to study exorcisms with Hopkins' character, the infamously unorthodox Father Lucas. After witnessing the master's methods, we — like Michael — are left wondering what's real and what's just mere theatrics. (Last summer's "The Last Exorcism" daringly explored the same notion.)
In the middle of purging a demon from a pregnant teen's body, Father Lucas' iPhone rings — and he takes the call. He knowingly jokes about spinning heads and pea soup. He also pulls off a little sleight of hand to assuage a troubled boy who claims he's been seeing visions of a mule with burning red eyes. Hopkins makes the character charming, almost irresistible, even as he begins to show signs that he might not be so trustworthy.
"The Rite" makes its own turn — from a film that's smart and suspenseful to one that feels hackneyed and overwrought. The pregnant teen contorts her body in impossible ways and curses in languages she doesn't even know. Michael begins to wonder whether he's seeing and hearing things, which he bounces off a journalist (Alice Braga) who has befriended him while working on a piece about exorcisms.
And inevitably, even old, reliable Father Lucas starts behaving, um, a little strangely. As we know from his indelible turns as Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins can be frightening enough all on his own, just standing there delivering his lines. He doesn't need any technological trickery and he certainly doesn't need his voice enhanced in any way. Hafstrom apparently didn't think so, though, and overwhelms what might have been a disturbing, final showdown between good and evil.