Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)

Posted: January 19, 2016 in Reviews
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Bare Hands, Crucifix, Holy Water

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Reviewed by: Pontifex Aureus

You can look at a starry sky and enjoy the pure sight of it; you can marvel at its dark beauty, its mystery, but what are you looking at really? Beyond the veil of sky lies infinite space and each point of twinkling light is really a blazing orb of fire. You can watch The Exorcist and simply enjoy the masochist pleasures of a masterfully crafted horror film, but what is the film really showing us? It won’t tell us, it only suggests; there’s no hand-holding here. Two different people can see the same film and arrive at two different conclusions. Or the same person can watch the film twice and arrive at different conclusions each time. For the careful viewer, The Exorcist is rich with meaning and delves deeper than a casual glance would suggest.

 

In the district of Georgetown, an evil entity slowly encroaches on the lives of the community members as it takes possession of a young girl named Reagan. Drawn into this supernatural conflict are the girl’s mother, a young priest suffering from a crisis of faith, and an elder priest experienced in the rites of exorcism. Together they must perform the dangerous exorcism ritual and directly engage evil face to face, in order to save the girl.

Reagan Possessed Ms MacNeil and the Cross

The Exorcist wrote the book on possession movies in a style that has since been imitated countless times. But beyond the rather straightforward plot, at its heart, The Exorcist is a solemn meditation on the battle between good and evil. This is made clear right away in the opening scene, as the elderly priest, Father Merrin, stands face to face with a statue of the demon Pazuzu, foreshadowing the battle to come—a battle with evil personified.

Kinderman and the Stairs Pazuzu Pukes

It is this personification of evil that gives The Exorcist its power to scare. Everyday experience tells us that evil comes from within ourselves, by doing evil things, but The Exorcist shows us evil as a thing, as an elemental force of nature, divorced from human deeds. This evil is a concrete absolute, a concept that some people refer to as the Devil. The real genius of The Exorcist is that it is able to make that concept feel real by injecting it into a very realistic-feeling situation. The film carries itself with the sober matter-of-factness of a documentary and defies the conventional Hollywood formula. There is no one clear protagonist, there is no steady escalation of action (it’s rather slow actually), and even the climax is blasphemously anti-climactic as the titular exorcist dies quietly off-screen of natural causes, cheating the audience of the promised showdown. What kind of movie does that? It doesn’t conform to set patterns, it isn’t easily explained, and it delights in shattering your expectations. It feels more like real life, doesn’t it? That’s what makes the “Evil-with-a-capital-E” of this film so threatening, because it is intruding in what is otherwise a pretty mundane portrayal of what the real world looks and feels like, as if to say “this sort of thing really happens and it could happen again”.

Merrin Arrives Merrin and Karras

In fact, this Evil takes slow possession of the film itself in much the same way it takes possession of Reagan. At first it is only hinted at, heard, but not seen. Then, briefly, we begin to see images—a demonic face forcing its way into the narrative through dreams. By the third act, the evil force has seized total control of the story, forcing the narrative into Reagan’s room, where it remains for most of the rest of the film. This invasion is felt by the audience as well, as this alien Other forces its way into their viewing experience.

 

As sharply as evil is illuminated in this film, it takes a rather ambiguous look at the forces of good. The film seems to suggest that faith is the weapon of choice against evil, but then why does the tone of the film remain so relentlessly bleak? And though the forces of good ultimately win the day, the demon is never properly exorcised; it takes an act of self-sacrifice to finally get rid of the demon. Victory is achieved at such a steep price that it hardly feels like victory at all. And if Pazuzu and Father Merrin symbolize opposite extremes on the scale of good and evil, then why make Father Merrin so frail and old? It is my interpretation that the film’s message is that goodness, unlike evil, must be maintained through faith. Evil is an ocean wave crashing against the flood-wall of goodness. The waves are always strong and in endless supply, but the flood-wall will weather and break if it is not carefully maintained. Others have interpreted this differently however, seeing the priests’ Pyrrhic victory as evidence that faith does not work, but rather action, with the intervention of the younger priest, Father Karras, prevailing where Father Merrin’s prayers did not. It’s hard to tell exactly what The Exorcist is telling us, it remains as it has always been: a dark, enigmatic, poignant, and utterly compelling parable of unknowable mystery and ominous profundity.

 

 

Comments
  1. Really enjoyed reading this, brilliantly written and interesting too!

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