This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Trey Lawson’s turn to do the damage. Here are Liam‘s thoughts on The Ninth Configuration.
I have what many have told me is an irrational fondness for The Exorcist II: The Heretic. It is a wild, weird, and maybe ultimately unsuccessful film. I saw it when I was young and I am probably blinded by nostalgia, I admit it. Still, it charms me with its utter strangeness, and I assume it is this love that has kept me from ever being even a little bit curious about the film William Peter Blatty considered the spiritual and conceptual sequel to The Exorcist: The Ninth Configuration. If one has never read the original text and only seen the Friedken movie, one might miss the fact that The Exorcist is definitely ABOUT something. I don’t say that to denigrate the film; it is a dang masterpiece. However, the film is a truly horrific tale, and this horror might distract many from what is also going on here. The author of this tale thinks there is in fact something DESPERATELY wrong with our world. Blatty isn’t interested in continuing this conversation with America (look at the numbers on The Exorcist as both a novel and a movie, and know our man had the attention of the nation if not the world) through another tale of abject terror and supernatural intervention. For Blatty, it is not that the demonic is not real: he truly believed it was. However, what matters is that the world is sick and painful and often devoid of meaning, but also injected with something more. The Ninth Configuration is in fact a compassionate, and even sympathetic look at what Blatty saw as a crisis, a conflict between meaning/religion and atheism/nihilism. In some ways it is a drama about mental illness, about military service, and even about love and sacrifice. Yet it is without a doubt and argument about what this world needs, and what this world is about. It is a brilliant, moving, and intelligent film that misses the most obvious actual crisis of faith the nation has been facing since its beginning.
An abandoned castle in the American northwest might seem an unlikely location for an experimental military mental health facility, but that is where The Ninth Configuration begins. Stacy Keach plays Colonel Vincent Kane, a new doctor at the facility, or so we are told (Spoilers ahead, but this film is from 1979, so I feel no shame.). At first the stoic doctor simply observes the utter chaos of this facility which exists partially out of a suspicion that many there are in fact playing a long game to get out of combat duty during Vietnam. However, the film is setting us up for a big “surprise” as we learn that Kane is in fact a patient, and the real head doctor, played by Ed Flanders, is his brother. The true experiment was actually letting Kane dissociate from his violent past and play the role of the head doctor. His interactions with this rogues gallery of underrated character actors (Joe Spinell, Jason Miller, Neville Brand, Tom Atkins, George DiCenzo, Robert Loggia, Moses Gunn) are all compelling, but it is the combined attraction and repulsion shared with Scott Wilson playing an atheist astronaut who lost his nerve just before take off which really gives the film its dramatic arc. Yes, there is the struggle against madness (portrayed in the worst possible ways) and, as subtext, the evils of war, but with these two characters we see the deep conviction of Kane who, in his delusion, has become a believer in the “God of the gaps,” a theology that says there is too much order in existence to be random, and Capt. Cutshaw who sees a meaningless void and is thus afraid to risk losing all he will ever have.
The film oscillates between a variety of characters interacting with Keach, each tending to portray the worst kinds of stereotypes of “crazy people”: delusions of grandeur, utter psychosis, and the sort of weird obsessions played too often in films for laughs. While the movie certainly allows some reflection on mental illness and how one perceives reality might impact how one is seen as human, by and large this is a side note to Blatty’s main concern. Most of the film plays rather theatrically, with lots of charged interactions and small monologues, and very little occurring until the big reveal, where we find out Kane is actually “Killer Kane,” a marine infamous for his bloodthirsty exploits. Then the film walks a line between drama and exploitation film, with an explosive scene unique in its own way. This is in fact what makes the film work at all, the amazing triumph that is Stacy Keach’s performance. Keach must, in essence, play two characters. We must believe him as the stoic and at times almost catatonic Kane who thinks he is a psychiatrist. This man is withheld, but not complete dissociated. He must engage with patients believably as well as make intellectual arguments about redemption and the essential goodness of the universe. He must also lose his shit and murder half a biker gang with his bare hands. To make both performances viscerally real and carry the audience into what is an extravagant and indulgent final act takes a lot of heavy lifting, but Keach is more than up to the task. His co-conspirator in this miracle of filmmaking is of course Scott Wilson, who himself has a difficult role. Capshaw is delirious and incoherent, but maybe not. Has his encounter with the great unknown broken him? Or is he so irrationally desperate to avoid death that he has essentially become insane? Wilson somehow makes the ambiguity of his character compelling, and the emotional core of that character never comes across as anything but certain. They are both struggling with a bear of a script. There is a hell of a lot of DIALOGUE, the sort of lines written with the almost no concern for the natural rhythms of human speech. These characters, even the ones that serve as nothing more than site gags really “HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY,” and these two manage that in the least distracting way.
It would be easy to focus on the weakest aspects of the film, those being the script, which is just too much, and the theology, which I will say more about soon, but suffice to say I found burdensome. However, the film is, despite these deficiencies, really great. The cast, while not as awesome as Keach and Wilson, are all charming and amazing. There are some outstanding folks in this, and even the ones given far too little to do (Atkins) still are great to see. The bar brawl is awesome, the set is ridiculous and perfect, and the film looks great. Even though the film is ultimately dissatisfying in its ideological bent, it is fascinating to see how it gets there. Blatty was a Catholic of a certain time, the ones for whom all manner of seeming impropriety could be seen and explored, as long as one ended in the right place, of course. The need to wrap up this film, one complicated with war and death and violence, in such a neat little Jesus bow is very frustrating, but the journey to get there is filled with interesting stuff. That I can at least respect. I suspect that, in reality, with this much death and destruction on display, simply ending at the cross is actually just insufficient. Still, seeing how daring Blatty is to not only show the real life of these men, but to not even shy away from suicide is engaging. Misguided perhaps, but entirely interesting.
Still, as the film ended, my mind raced immediately to James Baldwin’s landmark work of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work. I am, in this final section, about to get very nerdy about a very particular aspect of this film, and I know this might be alienating for some. Theology is not, as some would have claimed at another time in history, a “universal” discourse. However, God Thinking of some kind has actually shaped a lot of our culture and politics, so I think it is still worth considering, and I would say there are many parts of The Devil Finds Work that show how both art and faith, whether you believe in them or not, have shaped or at least reflected the American consciousness. The book ends with a reflection on Lady Sings The Blues that then leads directly into a brief but poignant reflection on The Exorcist. Now, I am no Baldwin and cannot hope to disagree with or build upon his work. The man was an intellectual powerhouse. Still, this film has actually helped me more fully understood Baldwin’s central critique of The Exorcist, a film he viscerally hated almost completely separate from the filmmaking itself. For Baldwin, this story was the perfect example of what he also found at play in Lady Sings the Blues, that white supremacy operates partially from the fact that white folks almost completely do not know themselves. Therefore, not knowing themselves nearly as well as those they murder, black folks and others, know them, they must project in other ways. A film like The Exorcist simply shows how unaware white America is of the presence of evil in their world, their institutions, and themselves. For Baldwin, he knew “the devil” didn’t need to mess with no little girl. Evil is in the cop and the sheriff and the priest and the activist and the politician and in each of us when we ignore the humanity of others. I knew, when I first read these ideas from Baldwin, that he was right. For me though, there was something so viscerally powerful about The Exorcist, as well as all films about demon possession, that I couldn’t see how they functioned theologically and socially to keep us from seeing ourselves.
Not so with The Ninth Configuration. Here, I do not mean only to point to race, though that is present as well. For Blatty, not only in his first book but in this one too, the central struggle of meaning is between a world made with purpose and a world floating in a meaningless void. If the heavens are empty, if there is no trumpet at the end, if there is no by and by to which we arrive, then the world is dead and meaningless. Not just for him, but as a whole. This is the central crisis of this film and to some small extent The Exorcist as well. There is a conflation of two extremes. For Blatty, it is not just theism versus atheism, but meaning versus nihilism. He does not even just conflate them, he implies through the film/book that one is simply a disguise for the other. This kind of abstract struggle of man with a universe either devoid of or pregnant with meaning is exactly what Baldwin was worried about: for him while watching The Exorcist, for me while watching The Ninth Configuration. You see, evil needn’t be the embodied struggle to steal the soul of a little girl, nor the argument over whether human compassion indicates some greater will, some deep reality. One need only look to the system of America itself, to the history of genocide and slavery and imprisonment and war and policing. The devil is in the eye of each of us, and it is only white folks’ deep disconnect from themselves that keeps them from seeing it. In The Ninth Configuration it is not only God who is both present and absent simultaneously, but Vietnam as well. Vietnam is the context, the canvas onto which Kane’s violence and then what we are meant to see as his self sacrifice are projected. Yet the actual evil of Vietnam, like the American Empire itself, is made absent in its presence. For Baldwin, The Exorcist allows the continuing narrative that evil is outside our world, even though it is a world only conceivable through the broken bodies of black folks, a modernity made real and knowable only because of the figure but also the literal slave. In The Ninth Configuration, our characters are torn as to whether redemption in a violent world is possible, while never quite questioning a world that demands such violence at all. Has there ever even been a movie before this one as clearly about Vietnam while managing to never actually look the horror of Vietnam head on?
The Ninth Configuration is a brilliant film, and a truly engaging idea. However, it ends in such a way as to demand a certain answer. Sacrifice, specifically redemptive sacrifice, is real. Thus, because that is real, therefore the entire “thing”, God and heaven and all the Saints, well they are also REAL in the strictest sense. The confusion and the blood and the mess of the earlier part of the film, the empty moon and the echoing void, these are all swallowed up by the cross itself. That bloody bar room as well, and those blood soaked jungles of Vietnam and all the other places humanity is pushed to its limit, these are all covered in the shadow of this big ole cross. Blatty doesn’t see, though, as many of his generation did not, how all this also subsumes humanity itself. In ending all these questions there, in simply focusing on the end, so to speak, we ignore all the ways we have failed before then. Humanity itself is found in those places where we see another person and in them see ourselves and thus allow a chance for them to be REAL. A chance for us to see their dignity and their value, and the limits of what we can do and claim.