Review: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (2019)

Preamble

The Exorcist has always been one of my cinematic obsessions. When I was younger, its premise of a demonic possessed girl stuck with me like a formative camp fire story. When I saw it in my late teens, the film was far more engaging and horrific then I imagined. Despite finding it less scary in the intervening years (in large part to paling in comparison to the superior and terrifying source material), the 1973 film shows how dramatic and thematically rich the horror genre can be. With that in mind, whenever there’s an Exorcist documentary on the block, I gravitate to it like Pac-Man does with fruit. Before I get into my review of the documentary, what do you think of Leap of Faith? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Despite having The Exorcist in the title, Leap of Faith is far more than a simple tell-all about the celebrated horror film. It’s a personal meditation on the concept of faith and a cinematic manifesto for William Friedkin’s documentary style. The phrase Leap of Faith takes on a fascinating meaning, with some of the events that happened during the making of the film (such as Friedkin replacing Stacy Keach with Jason Miller). But this concept also extends to Friedkin’s faith in certain sequences in the film.

The most notable being the opening in Northern Iraq where Father Merrin comes face to face with a statue of the demon he will confront in the film’s climax. Despite puzzling audiences and William Peter Blatty’s publishers, Friedkin contends that the sequence is “the very solid underpinning for the whole piece.” Its inclusion has always spoken highly of the director’s faith in the audience to understand its meaning and place in the narrative.

At the same time, the documentary has some lip service about fate with Friedkin contending that many of the film’s elements came from “forces beyond me that brought things to that movie like offerings.” The inclusion of this aspect does create an interesting tug of war between artistic intent and the dominos of life, that sometimes combine to create a perfect clarity (when viewed in hindsight). Friedkin splits the difference between acknowledging the role that fate played in him getting the gig and being clear about the film he wanted to make (after reading Blatty’s novel).

Aside from these notions that permeate the film, Leap of Faith is at its best when Friedkin is expounding upon choices for certain scenes. The best one being the various camera moves in the scene between Lieutenant Kinderman and Chris MacNeil. They’re both sitting at a table and there are two setups; with the camera, over MacNeil’s shoulder as it moves towards the Detective and vice versa. It’s a remarkable instance of subtle filmmaking that creates a fundamental tension between both characters (in an intimate and mundane setting).

This aspect also extends to a discussion about the paintings and artworks that inspired some of the film’s most iconic scenes. In particular, Friedkin’s breakdown of how René Magritte’s painting- “The Empire of Light” inspired the dreamlike image of Father Merrin outside of the MacNeil house, is a highlight.

Leap of Faith runs into problems when it comes to how it addresses William Peter Blatty. While there are instances where Friedkin discusses great points of contention with Blatty (such as the writer’s initial screenplay for the film and the fact he wanted to play Father Damien Karras), there’s no moment where Friedkin reflects on the legacy of the man’s work or his friendship with him. The closest the documentary comes is a moment when the director says that he and Blatty bonded over the love of their mothers.

By the same token, the documentary skates around The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen that came out in 2000. It would have been interesting to see how the director views this extended version after nearly 20 years, and how the editing process spoke to some of the choices he made with the original cut.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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