A prominent theme in The Exorcist is identity crisis, and various techniques are used to support it. The cast’s performances can suggest several internal conflicts within the characters, and the special effects together with make-up supply the idea. Certain aspects of frame composition also help develop the theme, such as the prevalence of one type of shot and other choices. The notion that an act of demon possession equals identity crisis is not novel, and the film is a vivid example of such an equivalence (Giordan and Possamai 457). The Exorcist’s theme is supported using the performances, the script, and the frame composition.
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Identity crisis is evident in such characters as Regan MacNeil and Father Damien Karras, performed by Linda Blair and Jason Miller, respectively. The former is a teenage girl who starts experiencing changes in behavior. At first, she is a cheerful girl, enjoying an amicable relationship with her mother (“The Exorcist” 00:16:42-00:17:43). Eventually, Regan’s demeanor changes, starting from subtle refusals at the doctor’s office (“The Exorcist” 00:32:34-00:33:40). Her appearance at the party is especially out of character, with rude speech and outrageous actions (“The Exorcist” 00:42:20-00:43:18). Occasionally, Regan doubts whether what she is doing is right (“The Exorcist” 00:43:19-00:44:20, 00:52:27-00:54:16). After an outside intervention, she eventually returns to normal (“The Exorcist” 02:00:25-02:02:20). In other words, Regan falls under a bad influence, after which her identity is questioned and undergoes changes, but the conflict is resolved once the negative source is out of the picture. Father Damien Karras also doubts his identity as a priest due to previous experience and scientific advancements. After facing a challenge, he regains a sense of self. Thus, Regan and Father Damien Karras experience internal conflicts, which are eventually overcome.
The film makes use of special effects and make-up to highlight the theme of identity crisis. For instance, the majority of Regan’s actions that required additional techniques, such as projectile vomiting, levitation, and head rotation, reflect a person in distress. It is further accentuated by make-up, which makes the character’s face appear bruised, which implies a major change in one’s personality. Green and whitened eyes have a similar effect – to showcase both subtle and evident alterations. The remaining scars serve as a reminder that the crisis occurred but was successfully averted (“The Exorcist” 02:04:45-02:05:10). For Father Damien Karras, the make-up is not an indicator of change but of the final resolution to remain true to his identity (“The Exorcist” 02:00:25-02:02:20). Overall, special effects and make-up techniques help emphasize identity crisis and its aftermath.
Frame composition partially contributes to the theme, as some choices appear deliberate. Most shots are close-ups of the characters, accentuating the changes they undergo. Middle ones mostly always show everyone present during a scene, demonstrating that they are interested in helping Regan overcome the conflict (the good outside influence). Meanwhile, the demon is in the dark, reflecting the negative impact he has on the girl. Most frames work according to the principle that every element is significant, which helps trace the subtleties in Regan’s behavior or the priest’s ritual. Some rules, such as symmetry, can be broken to achieve an unsettling effect and emphasize the negative nature of the characters’ conflict. Generally, frame composition strengthens the theme, although it is not as impactful as the other two elements.
The Exorcist might have more straightforward themes, but identity crisis appears subtle, as the characters act as if they are experiencing one while the events suggest otherwise. In addition, the special effects and the make-up emphasize their performances and strengthen the idea that falling under bad influence can be devastating. Frame composition also contributes to the theme, although to a lesser extent, but it can be particularly powerful for highlighting subtle details. Altogether, the film is meaningful, cleverly employing certain techniques to develop the point.
Giordan, Giuseppe, and Adam Possamai. “The Over-Policing of the Devil: A Sociology of Exorcism.” Social Compass, vol. 63, no. 4, 2016, pp. 444–460. SAGE Journals, Web.
The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, performances by Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and Max von Sydow, Warner Brothers, 1973.