Monday, October 5, 2009

Movie Review: The Exorcist

Directed by William Friedkin. 1973.

The Devil exists. There may or may not be a god, and if he exists he may or may not be willing or able to help you. From these premises director William Friedken proceeds to assault and assail the filmgoers, twisting their emotions and amplifying their doubts. Rarely are horror movies so carefully crafted and even less often are audiences so thoroughly manipulated. Yet let us move beyond the violence and the chills and let us tease out some of the film’s implications.

One of the film’s principle themes is the impotence of technology in the face of transcendental forces. This is undoubtedly a leap many people will be unwilling or unable to entertain and such is not surprising given the profound scientific achievements of the last and current century. The response of people unwilling to make this leap, I have found, is usually, “Well it is always something causing it, even if we don’t know what it is.” Such implies that in the world in which we live, matter, forces, and all, is ordered, perceptible, and explicable by the human mind. I am not saying such a supposition is foolish or naïve. The fact that I now write at an internet-connected computer suggests the assumption I lean toward. For a moment, though, suppose such a connection, even if it does exist, is not universal, i.e. there is something outside our perception and control. Suppose our multi-million dollar microscopes and MRI machines and other technological marvels whirred in vain. Suppose the psychologists and endocrinologists and neuropathologists told you what they told Regan’s mother, “We just don’t know.” What if we were suddenly stripped of our reason, our science, our ability to know, of our only means of securing and improving our life? Would that not be truly terrifying?

The Exorcist delves deeper though, to a still darker place. Not only does there exist something we do not know, perhaps cannot know, this something understands us quite well. Perhaps better than we understand ourselves. Worse still, it does not like us very much either. Maybe that is not quite right. It certainly does not like us insofar as it does not wish peacefully to coexist with us, yet on the other hand it seems to derive more than a little pleasure out of tormenting us and robbing us of our faith. Not just religious faith, either, but faith in our scientific reason, faith in our ability to act to protect ourselves, faith in our very ability to know. Please stop and reflect on that for a moment: what if you were suddenly robbed those abilities? That eventuality should, in fact, terrify atheists even more than people with faith in a god, since if there exists anything outside your perception and it is not part of any divine plan and there is no god to offer you assistance, you would be quite out of luck, even in a world without demons.

Nonetheless there is a devil in The Exorcist and it is not content simply to lord its invulnerability over us, it is indeed there to rob us of our confidence. Not only can we not harm it, but it will defile even the purest and most innocent of us and kill the most experienced and faithful of us. The uncertainty of the ending, though, is truly the most unsettling aspect of the movie. When the demon departs we do not really know why. Fr. Merrin’s ministrations and exorcism not only failed but he perished in attempting them. We likewise cannot be expected to believe the demon was bound to Fr. Karras’ body and perished with him.  It simply departs, having claimed lives and perhaps faiths in the process. Can we interpret any good from this? On the one hand Karras’ sacrifice tempted the demon out of Regan’s body and indeed saved her life, on the other hand he lost his. Did the sacrificial nature of his actions play a part in demonic or divine intervention? Was it incidental? Depending on one’s values and also one’s faith, his success may be of great or little consolation, but wherever you decide to put your faith, this is one unsettling movie.

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