374) The Exorcist (1973) Dir: William Friedkin Date Released: December 1973 Date Seen: October 31, 2009 Rating: 4/5
The perverse decision to theatrically release The Exorcist two days before Christmas is fraught with telling meaning. Apart from being sacrilegious, the film is as cheery as a death sentence and in its own cynical way, that's what the film is for its two male protagonists, both Catholic priests undergoing spiritual crises. The possession of little Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is not important as far as it affects her or her mother, though it may look like that in the film's ambling first half. Instead, it's a test for both Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), one that they cannot pass because there are no rules or signs of faith that work in the long run. Right off the bat in the film's superbly paced prologue, we're shown forces at work that are beyond their and hence our ken, ominous images of inexplicable violence that you want to be able to understand, to label, to quarantine with some explanation, reasonable or not. But you can't and that knowledge is what kills both men. Ho ho ho, suckers.
The crux of The Exorcist is a "chicken and egg" question: which came first, the portents or the disintegration of belief? The answer here is deceptive because in the prologue, it seems to be the former: Father Merrin putters around in Nineveh looking for mystical, arcane artifacts. He finds them, of course, because he's looking for them (Or is it the other way around?). We learn later in the film that he's an experienced exorcist and just barely survived a months-long exorcism. We therefore can't know if it's that previous exposure to paranormal phenomena that has led Merrin to further confirm his disbelief or if it was there all along looking for expression.
Father Karras has a similar story: his conspicuously Greek mother (Vasiliki Maliaros) is dying alone in her apartment. She refuses to move out--"Then pao pouthena!"--and he doesn't have the money to move her into the hospital she needs, so she dies unattended. Karras' guilt at her loss is overshadowed by a foregrounding scene where he crosses paths with a crusty bum claiming to be a former altar boy. Karras looks at his supplicating face as if he were looking at a vampire while the roar of an incoming train drowns out the queasy silence of their brief acquaintance. The train's horn brays before and after they meet, once again making it difficult to tell whether or not Karras finds his faith rebuked because he wants it to be or not.
This is ironic considering that that same question of psycho-somatic affliction is posed to little Regan by one of a barrage of doctors her doting mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) consults. One psychiatrist posits, "Belief in the power of possession can cause it." And he may be right but Regan and Chris are strictly vestigial parts of the story, much like Lee J. Cobb's Lt. Kinderman. Kinderman's name suggests he's here to care for Regan--"Kinder" is German for "Child"--but he and both women for that matter, are just there to push the plot along. They don't get any resolution to their stories, save for the fact that they get to move away from their troubles, as if that solves anything when those troubles are Satanic in nature. The matter is strictly between Mr. Scratch and the men of the cloth; secular protagonists need not apply.
We're encouraged to keep our eyes on Karras as he has five times the amount of screentime that Merrin, the titular avenger, does. Though he's initially doubtful that Chris' claims hold any merit, he visits Regan just to re-assure her that it's all in her head. When Regan brings up Karras' dead mother without ever knowing about her, his faith wavers. Still, he refuses to give in and armed with tap water, he douses her to prove that what he thinks he's seeing can be scientifically explained. The girl flinches after she's told that she's been spritzed with holy water so Karras thinks he's caught her in a lie. But later, she takes just as poorly to real holy water when Merrin applies it, suggesting that there's no strength to that placebo save for the strength of skepticism invested in it.
The futility of Karras and Merrin's final confrontation with Regan is vital because it confirms Karras' greatest fear: the emotion he struggles to invest in the cerements of his faith is wasted because none of it means anything. While most people remember the unbending strength of Merrin and Karras' repeated cries of "The power of Christ compels you!" they don't seem to recall that nothing effectively stops Regan/Satan. She kills Merrin when Karras isn't in the room and once she takes hold of him, he, now full of the Spirit and the knowledge of the existence that negates his faith, throws himself out a window.
In doing so, he saves Regan and Chris are saved but we're not left with a shot of them riding off into the sunset. Instead, we get a shot of another priest staring blankly at the foot of a long staircase outside Regan's window where Karras' body landed after his long tumble. And so the cycle begins again for another man of God. That knowledge makes the ending especially damning. It tell us in no uncertain terms that the only things you can count on is not that evil will conquer good and that your doubts can literally take hold of you any time they want. Seasons greetings.