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William Friedkin: Auteur of Existential Dread

William Friedkin’s films are obsessed with the ambiguity of villainy and the perishability of the human spirit.

William Friedkin: Auteur of Existential Dread
Photo: Photofest

In 1949, The Washington Post carried the headline, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” The boy, a 14-year-old later given the pseudonym Roland Doe, was very likely mentally ill, and he was purportedly subjected to between 20 and 30 “performances of the ancient ritual of exorcism.” The article was rife with inaccuracies, from the location of the alleged exorcism to the names of those involved. It was, simply, a captivating lie, and it became a national sensation. The questionable ordeal caught the attention of a Georgetown student named William Peter Blatty, inspiring him to write, some 20 years later, his novel The Exorcist, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 57 weeks. In 1973, it was adapted into a film by William Friedkin, who helmed the project after it was turned down by Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Stanley Kubrick, and Mike Nichols. Both the novel and the film are, to this day, said to be “based on a true story.”

The Exorcist caused a furor. Accounts of heart attacks and projectile vomiting during public screenings are, like the story that inspired the film, exaggerated, or outright fabricated, but they speak to the film’s galvanizing power, little of which has been lost in the four decades since its release. The Exorcist ’s many accolades were unprecedented for a horror film (it famously became the first one to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards), and Friedkin became one of the most desirable directors in Hollywood.

The histrionic stories enfolding The Exorcist, and the way Friedkin discusses them, reveal a kind of navel-gazing raconteur quality about the film’s progenitor. Friedkin, one of the most demanding and unflinchingly outspoken directors to emerge during the New Hollywood era, talks about his films defensively, fervidly, without pretending to peddle in objectivity. His newest, the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, purportedly about an exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, is instead, from its opening moments, a film about Friedkin and the legacy of The Exorcist. His is the first voice we hear, as he intones solemnly standing before the “Exorcist steps” in Georgetown, unironically recalling Rod Serling with his stoical narration, and his is the presence that captivates. He’s an enthusiastic, lively talker, his hands cutting through the air to emphasize a point, his voice clear and unabraded by age.

On the occasion of The Devil and Father Amorth’s release, the Metrograph in Manhattan is showing four of Friedkin’s films: The Exorcist, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in L.A., and Killer Joe. What’s immediately clear from this mini-retro is that Friedkin’s legacy is, and always will be, tethered to The Exorcist, the film about which he’s almost certainly asked the most during interviews, and to date one of only two to get a director’s cut, the other being Jade. Indeed, Friedkin’s reputation dropped significantly after Sorcerer—though that film, like so many maligned ones before and after, has been reevaluated in recent years—and was further sullied by Cruising, which was heavily hewn and spliced into a shorter, less coherent cut from Friedkin’s original version.

For years, Friedkin insisted that Sorcerer failed because of the popularity of Star Wars, rather than Sorcerer’s showy marketing scheme and misleading title, which suggests a fantasy instead of the grueling existential downer it is. He has always had a nihilistic streak and a predilection for intense, squalid entertainment, a prowess for visceral impact, and with Sorcerer, he found the sublime combination of nihilism and spectacle, angst and exhilaration. The film concerns four men, four castaway souls hiding in a squalid, middle-of-nowhere South American town: a hitman, a French businessman, a terrorist, and an Irish mafia getaway driver. In order to earn the money to escape this hellish vicinage, they embark on a mission of Sisyphean desperation, driving decrepit trucks loaded with highly labile explosives across the unforgiving terrain of the jungle. It’s a futile journey—they use two trucks in the likelihood that one will not make it—but they have no other choice.

Friedkin uses colors to conjure a variegated, hyper-saturated existential nightmare. With its dense, ubiquitous greens, the jungle of Sorcerer resembles a verdant maw that seems to be swallowing the characters alive. Throughout, the searing reds of fire and spilled blood starkly contrast all the forest greens. During the film’s climax—an oneiric drive through canyons that, captured in wide master shots, suggest a purgatorial realm—flashes flash ethereally as the sky turns purple, as if bruised. Compare the colors in Sorcerer to the stark blacks and frosty white walls of The Exorcist, which Friedkin once described as being akin to a black-and-white film. Faces of disturbing pallor appear in the corners of the frame, or flash almost subliminally during moments of respite, the dichotomy of hues reflecting that of good and evil.

As Jackie Scanlon, Roy Scheider, the closest thing to an A-list star in Sorcerer, is all sinew and sorrow, hollowed-out eyes, and thousand-yard stares—a performance of ferocious corporeality and weathered dread, the kind that feels less like acting than simply existing. His face looks like a piece of old leather beaten and sutured back together, his lean arms protruding from rolled-up sleeves and scrawled with veins. Compare his physicality to that of Bruno Cremer’s French businessman, who can afford coffee and food in the local café, who’s lived a life of affluence and grown discernibly soft around the middle, or Francisco Rabal’s hitman, who moves with a languor afforded to those accustomed to comfort. Watch as Scheider grows despondent when the coterie of men comes across a fallen tree—the way he tries to hack his way through the jungle with an old machete, swinging madly, an inferno in his eyes. The malaise has dispersed and been replaced by a brutal, instinctive desire to life, a fear of dying in this green hellscape.

Friedkin’s gift with actors isn’t often discussed, but his best films are all anchored by great, sometimes career-best performances: the perpetually under-appreciated Scheider in Sorcerer; Ellen Burstyn as the tormented mother in The Exorcist (as well as first-time actor Jason Miller, a playwright, who, like Burstyn, earned an Oscar nomination for the film); and, perhaps most startlingly, Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe. This last film, adapted from the play by Tracy Letts, could be considered the preamble to the “McConaissance.” With a condensed intensity and salacious terror, McConaughey plays a detective who does little detecting and has a side gig as a $25,000-a-hit killer. What begins as a deep-fried hunk of sleazy comedy, about an inept family of trailer park trash plotting to kill their matriarch for her insurance policy, gradually turns into a depraved horror story about the nuclear family. It’s a sordid, stylish monster of a film, with its loquacious characters spinning inane ploys, talking themselves to death.

Letts’s play has nothing but contempt for its characters, but Friedkin’s fascination with the irredeemable and iniquitous never veers into caricature or condescension. By the time Gina Gershon fellates a chicken leg, the oleaginous piece of meat dripping with her blood, Friedkin has abandon any notion of decency, and you almost feel bad for the film’s pitiable lowlifes. He pulls no punches, quite literally: When McConaughey slugs Gershon in the face, Friedkin cuts to an abrupt close-up and her battered face, nose exploded. It very well might be more upsetting than anything in The Exorcist.

A visceral, tangible quality marks all of Friedkin’s best work. His films are exhausting, almost punishing. He doesn’t shy away from violence, from the sight of ravaged flesh. Think of the possessed girl’s face in The Exorcist, mangled and green, the skin split and oozing, or poor Gershon in Killer Joe, the blood pouring down her face as she serves McConaughey some KFC. Friedkin’s films all share a worldview and an obsession with the concomitant of decisions, with redemption and the futility of hope. All actions have serious consequences, from car chases that result in collateral damage to a crucifix, jabbed into a girl’s crotch, that draws blood. This unavoidable, unequivocal sense of consequence is at the heart of Sorcerer. The men must be aware of their every move, and at all times, or else they risk setting off their volatile explosives. And yet nothing they do will help them outrun their encroaching doom. They can survive every obstacle they face—say, a skinny, unstable rope bridge, across which their truck sputters and shakes, spewing smoke like some snarling monster from a fantastical world—and it doesn’t matter. They can’t outrun the consequences of the decisions that landed them in this situation.

Friedkin’s films can have a vast, almost ontological feeling, but he’s never been a showy, gaudy director. He’s no minimalist, but he rarely over-directs, preferring clear shots and a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Exorcist may be a special effects-laden blockbuster, but it sustains an intimately unsettling atmosphere. It’s a nightmare occurring in a bedroom, a place of supposed solace, of vulnerability. For the sparse, disturbingly fraught Bug, another Letts adaptation, Friedkin again makes a bedroom unnerving. Restricted to one location, a motel room, he manages to create a hermetic, insane world culled from the paranoia of a lunatic. In Sorcerer, a scene of the men preparing to blow up a fallen tree is shown in detail, each step accounted for, while the eventual shot of the tree exploding is done in one simple static take, instead of cutting to various angles, as is the norm in action films.

Despite the deteriorated mental and moral states of his characters, Friedkin prefers clarity in his films. Like the car chase in To Live and Die in L.A. that sees William Petersen’s Richard Chance barreling down the wrong side of the highway, pursued by gunmen; notice how long the shots last, how the entire frame is utilized, the consequent crashes and pile-ups left in the man’s wake. The film is a neon-hued neo-noir, the most epochal of Friedkin’s great films, with its synth score (by British new wave group Wang Chung) and panoply of tight acid-washed jeans, and also maybe the purest display of his obsession with seedy underbellies, with corruption and the ambiguity of villainy and the perishability of the human spirit, a relatively simple story of revenge and crime turned into another one of the director’s explorations of amorality.

Richard is a federal agent whose partner is killed by Willem Dafoe’s creepy artist cum psychopath, Eric Masters. This man of the law jettisons any pursuit of justice and becomes the thing he’s chasing, another of Friedkin’s themes (see also The Hunted, in which a covert assassin for the U.S. Army goes on a renegade killing spree, and is pursued by his former teacher). Characters may be charismatic, or dreamily handsome, but that doesn’t make them good guys, and doesn’t mean they’re not susceptible to corruption—the allure and excitement of criminality. Interpolated shots transcribe characters’ thoughts during moments of heightened angst. During the car chase, Richard thinks back to a bungee jump from earlier in the film; he’s an adrenaline junkie, and a car chase is just another high for him, while his partner, who will gradually inherit Richard’s soiled morality, is haunted by regrets.

Regrets plague most of Friedkin’s characters, and their attempts to ameliorate their anxieties and afflictions rarely work out. In this regard, The Exorcist, with its restorative ending—the priest-in-doubt’s faith rejuvenated and the young girl’s eternal soul saved—is at odds with Friedkin’s other films. Perhaps this is why it remains his most successful: For all its chthonic horrors and barbarity, The Exorcist is ultimately hopeful. Friedkin would never again permit such an ending, and he would never again find such resounding success.

William Friedkin will run from April 19—23 at the Metrograph.

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