Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Exorcist

Before I begin, I have two preambles; the first, I’ve never seen The Exorcist before. I’m sure I might have confessed this omission in my movie viewing. It was not a systemic decision to ignore William Friedkin’s classic, it just never came up. (Although, my co-worker who is only tangentially interested in film – and most of that because of my prodding – was straight-up aghast when I told her this). The second preamble – which is somewhat less “pre” and somewhat “mid” – fifteen minutes into the film I suspected that in finding my best shot I’d probably end choosing a shot that had little to with the more significant horror elements of the film, which might (re) enforce the fact that I’m not particularly intrigued by the genre. So there you go.
Considering the revulsion which my confession of not having seen The Exorcist had on an incidental cinema watcher, I assume a plot description is superfluous. Essentially, actress Chris MacNeil over the course of the film begins to discern significant changes in her daughter and after exhausting options she realises that the reason might me supernatural and calls in a priest for exorcism. The most searing thing about the horror elements in The Exorcist is the way they appear not simply for effect but as organic elements to buttress the most significant aspect of the film – the relationship between mother and child. (Well, the most significant aspect for me, at least.)

As a performer I’ve often found Burstyn to have a cadence that beautifully communicates maternal strength (a cadence I tend to relate to performers like, for example, Katharine Hepburn in everything post 1955 or Susan Sarandon in everything post 1989). The film, too seems to latch on that maternal instinct before all else. We’re introduced to Chris MacNeil (world famous actress, though she may be) not through her work, but through her maternal role. And, for me, it becomes the crux of the film – a mother’s journey in an attempt to care for her child. And, I love that Freidkin allows the relationship time to grow. He doesn’t just tell us said mother loves her child, he shows us, and by doing so does two significant things – gives Ellen a rounded character to play and more importantly makes the stakes all the more higher for when things go awry.

These two shots were runners up for my favourite shot. The reason I love them ended up being the reason I didn’t choose them (it's difficult to discern what's happening), but look at them…

The first is Chris and Regan frolicking before things get twisted, the second is Regan trying to calm her down when things begin getting crazy. I worry that those two shots get my point across ineffectively, but I appreciate the way Friedkin seems to visually contrast the physicality between mother and daughter before and after the possession. It’s easy to mistake the top image of Chris trying to calm a possessed Regan, and the bottom image – not in emotion – simply seems like a benign embrace – the power of seeing things in motion, of course.

I settled on a shot from maybe my favourite from the film, immediately after one of the most iconic scenes. After a crazed Regan interrupts the party, Chris makes her way upstairs to give her a bath giving us two beautiful shots.
My Best Shot
Chris in her dress, her sleeves rolled up, a vaguely dishevelled room and the simple act of caring for one’s child. It’s essentially what the film comes back to at the end for me and the reason I was so stressed when the film ended was not because I was petrified, but because a crying Ellen Burstyn makes me distraught. A mother’s devotion? Ellen sells it completely.

(Overkill, but I had to post these three shots of mother and daughter too. Burstyn and Blair's rapport is just beautiful.)

(This is a part of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series, forcing me week after to week to discover good films.)

Since I think all of you have seen The Exorcist, does the parent/child theme resound as much for you? Is Ellen Burstyn a wonderful encapsulation of cinematic maternal strength?


Squasher88 said...

Nice writeup Andrew. Yes, the parent/child theme did resonate with me as well. I also saved the shot of her caring for Regan in the bathtub.

Quite frankly, in this situation I would have probably sent my daughter away. Did you see what Regan put Chris through!? Her love for her daughter was undeniable.

Jose Solís said...

I saw your best shot and of course I thought "Melancholia". They both had related women interrupting a party to go bathe because they knew something bad was coming.

Paolo said...

Great, succinct post. I remember reading other critics lambasting how this movie was shot, but you`re right in that Bill's focus was on the mother daughter relationship. Other movies would do the 45 degree rule where the actors are half mugging through the camera. Burstyn and Blair ignore the camera and their eyes and bodies are mostly on each other. And I realize how that also subverts the body-phobic aspect of the horror genre, that Chris doesn't care what kind of monster her daughter turns into, she just wants the latter back and hold her.

Dan said...

Lovely piece of writing as always Andrew. Yes, I'll admit, I was a little surprised to hear you hadn't seen The Exorcist previously but given your distaste for the genre it is understandable. That said, you highlight the very reason I tell non-horror fans that The Exorcist may well be the best film ever made. The mother-daughter relationship is what drives the film from an emotional standpoint which grounds it in a reality that the supernatural elements may detract from. The performances of the two actresses also go a long way to achieving Friedkin's goal.

Colleen said...

I love how you broke this down and the shots you chose. I think you hit on one of the things that make this a great movie and not just a great horror movie. I've seen The Exorcist too many times to count. It came out when I was very young and I thought if I kept watching it, it wouldn't scare me anymore. I re-watched it after many years last Halloween for a blog post I did. All those viewing didn't help much.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

shane hmm, i don't know what i'd do if that was my child. i'd have probably fainted and never woke up.

jose AAARGH. why didn't i make that connection? now i love that shot even more, and now i want a movie where 1994 kirsten dunst was in the linda blair role. can you IMAGINE?

paolo "Chris doesn't care what kind of monster her daughter turns into, she just wants the latter back and hold her." aaaaw, love that line.

dan thanks much for the kind words. the emotional potency was a pleasant surprise, and it makes me think that that accounts for some part of the film's endurance. it's horror with emotion, not just horror being used poorly just for the hell of it, like so many films seem to do. (i don't quite loathe the genre, i just haven't fallen in love with it.)

colleen oddly, i wasn't that scared, but i saw it in the middle of the day.