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One of the Ten Best Movies Ever Made
Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb
There is a dialogue exchange between Ellen Burstyn's Chris MacNeill and Jason Miller's Father Damien Karris halfway through The Exorcist that pretty much spells out the thesis of the movie. Chris asks him what she would need to do to get an exorcism performed on her daughter, and his response is "First you got to put her in a time machine and take her back to the 16th century. Exorcisms are no longer performed since the discovery of schizophrenia, and modern mental illnesses."
Indeed, Chris has taken her daughter Reagan (Linda Blair) to some of the best psychiatrists in the city, and none of them can give a clear answer as to what is wrong with her daughter. They runs countless tests on her, and while nothing still shows up, they continue to write off Reagan's problem as being totally psychological, although you can see the uncertainty in their eyes.
The Exorcist argues that there is a world that lies beyond the realm of scientific explanation. There is a God and a Devil, it says, and there is a good and evil battle for the souls of humanity. What separates this movie from other similarly themed films is the documentary-style approach director William Friedkin brings to the material. Everything about the movie feels positively real, from the overall atmosphere to the characters and their interactions with each other.
That's probably what also makes it one of the scariest movies ever made. The Exorcist doesn't try to exploit evil or vile images for the sake of entertainment, and it doesn't rely on cheap genre clichés to earn an easy thrill. Instead, the movie scares you because you can believe in everything that happens in it. And, like some of the best horror movies, Friedkin manages to create some of the most horrifying scenes through some of the most mundane scenarios. There is a scene in a subway involving Father Karris and a beggar that is unusually disturbing.
And just wait until you see the way Friedkin uses sound; it's positively Hitchcockian. Perhaps one of the scariest scenes in the entire film happens during the opening segment in Northern Iraq, where we see a character named Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) staring at a rather ghastly demon statue. As the camera pushes in on the statue, Friedkin scores the shot with two dogs growling violently at each other, so that it seems as though the statue itself were growling at Merrin. It's pretty unnerving.
The climactic exorcism is absolutely draining. There is no music during the scene and no extravagant special-effects. It stays well within the reality of the story, and it concludes with an act of sacrifice that literally left me gasping for air.
The acting is pitch perfect all around, with Ellen Burstyn turning in an electrifying performance as Regan's concerned mother and Jason Miller commanding every scene he's in as the troubled Father Karris. Yet the one stand out performance that I want to mention is the one turned in by Lee J. Cobb, who plays the movie loving Lt. Kinderman. The actor is so exuberant and likable that he comes across as a ray of light in the movie's pervasively dark tone. You just can't help but smile every time the man comes on screen; heck, I'm smiling right now just thinking about the character.
Some viewers may be offended by the number of grotesque scenes in which little Reagan does things to herself as she's possessed by the devil. Heck, I'll even admit the scene with her involving the crucifix was more than a little painful to watch. And yet, I fully appreciate Friedkin for going all the way in his depiction of pure evil. There are many moments in The Exorcist that are far from entertaining, then again, I don't think this movie is meant to be an entertainment. It's suppose to be an emotional experience, and in that regard, the movie is flawless.
The Exorcist is simply a representation of everything a movie should be: Bold, challenging, beautiful, frightening and unforgettable. It is truly one of the greatest movies ever made.
Final Grade: **** (out of ****)