1. "The Rite" starts out legitimately curious about questions of ethics, of morals, of theology, and that surprised me. Most movies about exorcisms -- and by the way, I thought we just had The Last Exorcism? Apparently not -- just toss in some spooky old priests and some pea soup and some revolving heads and call it a day. But "The Rite" begins digging a little deeper, following a young seminary student named Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue, dull) who can't quite truly give himself to his God but can't abandon Him entirely. Sure, the plot contrivances of the first half hour are creaky and long-winded; there has to be a more subtle way to illustrate a budding priest's crisis of faith than by having a dying woman beg him for last rites while his disappointed mentor watches. (I would have preferred a miniature angel priest on one shoulder and a devil on the other.) But there is a thought in this movie's brain. For half an hour, anyway.
2. Because Kovak can't make up his mind whether or not he wants to be a priest, his mentor decides to send him to Rome to study exorcism. (Because why not, you know?) Thus, we have our movie's concept: Kovak the skeptic heads out to find his absolute proof as to whether or not there is a God by watching people have the devil forced out of their bodies. It would be nice if "The Rite" had any interests in the stakes beyond Kovak; if there are, in fact, demons inhabiting the souls of the innocent, it's a matter that sorta concerns the rest of us too. (Especially considering how many of them appear to reside in Rome. Cross that place off the vacation destinations.) But at this point, we've dropped the theological quandaries. The movie has begun its plot lumber.
3. In Rome, Kovak meets Father Lucas, and that he's played by Anthony Hopkins tells you all you need to know about the rest of the film. Hopkins, when he's in the right mood these days, can still be a compelling, almost fanciful presence (we liked his charmed befuddlement in "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger"), but when he's cashing a paycheck, like he is here, he blows a Laurence-Olivier-in-the-80s gasket. When we first meet Lucas -- the "unorthodox" exorcist Kovak is encouraged to meet -- he has a little bit of that fun late-era Hopkins twinkle, a bemused bewilderment to find himself in such silly movies, saying such silly words, that gives the film a little life, and the audience a little hope. Lucas seems to know more than the rest of us, so maybe at the end of the movie, he'll let us in on the joke. But Hopkins doesn't know any more than we do, which is why, by the end, he has no choice but to bulge out his eyes and unleash his inner Lecter. It's like watching Rich Little do his Johnny Carson impression.
4. You see, as it turns out -- and I hope you'll forgive the spoiler -- that there is a demon after all. His name is Baal. For all the movie's talk of faith and the hints that Father Lucas is some sort of mad genius mastermind priest, ultimately, it's just a demon named Baal. He takes over a pregnant woman and kills her, then takes over Kovak (I think; the movie is unclear about this) by using frogs and beads, and finally hops into the body of Father Lucas, obviously alert to the fact that Father Lucas is played by Anthony Hopkins and thus can scream in iambic pentameter. Once it becomes time for Baal to shine, the movie drops all other plot points -- some nonsense about Kovak's late mother, an entirely pointless character played by Alica Braga who should be wearing a necklace that says "Female," Rutger Hauer -- and just turns into the fourth-rate hacky exorcism "thriller" it was trying to pretend it wasn't for its first quarter. And because it's rated PG-13, there's not even any schlock gore to pull us along. It's just Hopkins' sagging skin, still disguising the neck veins that just don't have the energy to pop anymore.
5. The title credits claim the film is "suggested by real events." "The Rite" is suggested by real events the way the Death Star was suggested by a toaster. Most hilariously, the film's closing credits give us updates on the main characters, as if this were a documentary or a docudrama, as if we were learning about whatever happened to Jack Abramoff, or that guy who coached the Titans or something. As far as "based on a true story" addendums on films go, this one might be more egregiously bullsh--ty than even "Fargo"'s, and that one was entirely made up. This is a movie about priests fighting the evil Baal demon. That's not a spiritual journey "suggested by true events." That's a Tenacious D song.