The Exorcist

The Exorcist ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"There is only one."

The popular conception of Hell-as-lascivious-party is fairly ubiquitous. As moral relativism draws in shades of grey from the complications of the real world, the supernatural becomes similarly softened. Heaven is not where only the pure and blameless go to spend eternity—it must offer a warm welcome to those who are basically decent, who try. If God is love, then He must not be Heaven's ill-tempered bouncer; that would disrespect His divinity.

But something about the fundamentalist's conception of Hell, with its fire and brimstone, its gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, retains a primal fascination. And that version of Hell seems so easily entered. Satan's demons are all around, sowing doubt and vending temptation. The Devil's stooges are everywhere. If God is love, His love is not free. Maybe Heaven's heavenliness depends upon a hellish Hell. Maybe....

The existence of that Hell is the question animating The Exorcist, and more specifically, the existence of demons. Not the Devil—demons. The Devil, like God, is in some ways too big, too abstract a figure to frighten; he may give the marching orders, but he is too far behind the scenes to glimpse. But his minions...these we can see and touch and feel as they carry out their missions on their master's behalf. They infiltrate and give evil a face.

The other core element underpinning The Exorcist's greatness is its matter-of-factness. It is serious, but appropriately so. Director William Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty engage in no excess earnestness or overwrought cataclysm. Demons exist, they operate in ordinary environs, and God's messengers must dispatch them. And such events exist alongside the stresses of a single mother, the difficulties of adolescence, and the nagging existential doubts idling in the background.

Equally fascinating and crucial to The Exorcist's success is the evident scheme underlying the possession: The destruction of a faithful man's beliefs. A lesser film would have unleashed Pazuzu directly upon its intended victim. Demon attacks priest, priest confronts devil, crisis of faith (or incongruous badass-ery, depending on your goal) ensues. All well and good, but logically incoherent. How does one win an acolyte by launching an assault? Surely the Devil is cunning enough to realize the counterproductivity of such a plan. Attack a good Christian, and she will likely screw her courage tighter to her faith. She will interpret her survival as an act of God. But attack an innocent bystander, and God's presence becomes much more evanescent.

The Exorcist offers such an oblique trajectory. The MacNeils are not a religious family—quite the opposite. Mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful, liberated actress, while daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is unexpectedly sweet but expectedly spoiled by her well-heeled upbringing. Untroubled by faith, they concern themselves with horseback riding and vacations. The Devil need neither recruit nor attack them—they are effectively on his side. But Pazuzu's aim is not the MacNeils—it is Fathers Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Karras (Jason Miller). Having spotted his marks and their weaknesses, he weaponizes little Regan. Father Karras, his faith already quavering from his mother's deterioration and the psychological treatment he doles out daily to his congregation, cannot withstand such an overpowering blow to his spiritual solar plexus. And the ancient Father Merrin, a ruin among ruins, has too much pride in his work not to confront his enemy face-to-face, the obvious physical consequences notwithstanding.

None of this is underlined, but it adds weight to the proceedings. The Devil's pursuit takes plausible shape, leading to an inevitably melancholy conclusion. Father Merrin warns of the dangers of listening to the demon, and his words (and von Sydow's assured delivery of them) at first seem calming: We finally know what we're dealing with and how to combat it. But in the end, Karras listens to Pazuzu and dies, while Merrin listens to God and dies. Hope is hard to come by. Though the MacNeils are safe and the exorcism has, in a sense, succeeded, the victory brings no sense of security. We're told the Devil lost, but we can see he won.

The Exorcist begat many imitators. Some of these facsimiles are better or worse than others. Some are even rather good. But they invariably fall short where The Exorcist excels. Possession isn't garish CGI or bizarro stunts. It isn't merely infernal ventriloquism or a metaphor for the trials of pubescence (though it is an elegant metaphor). Truly frightening possession is that occurrence you can't explain. It frustrates and bewilders and confuses and offers no solution. A friend's death could be an accident, but seems a strange one—yet how to explain it? A daughter's mercurial behavior could be just an adolescent phase or an incipient illness, and yet it feels like more—but how to prove it? A priest's beliefs are his trade, but those beliefs don't account for his mother's dementia or his parishioner's tribulation—yet, if not his beliefs, what? It's a hoary cliché that religion serves to explain away that which people have trouble otherwise understanding. But when the world says, "I don't know," and yet the problem is there, it's right there, and you don't know what to do or where it came from or why it's come to eat you alive...it's terrifying.

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