Film structure – The Exorcist (1973)
In this post we will analyze “The Exorcist” from 1973, using the Nine-Act structure explained in this previous post. Take a look into it if you are not familiar with this kind of structure.
After watching the film as fans enjoying this horror masterpiece, we will watch it again in order to identify the different sections of the nine-act structure. This sections are:
- Act 0. Backstory
- Act 1. Opening Shot.
- Act 2. Something Bad/Mysterious Happens.
- Act 3. Meet the Hero.
- Act 4. Commitment.
- Act 5. Go for the Wrong Goal.
- Act 6. Reversal.
- Act 7. Go for the New Goal.
- Act 8. Resolution
For this review, the version of the film used will be the director’s cut, with a runtime of 2:12:22. The review will stick to the analysis of the nine-act structure coming directly from what the viewer sees, without interpretations or declaration of intentions of the authors, topic that should be covered in a proper film review.
Act 0. Backstory
This act happens before the film starts and defines the seminal incident. In the case of The Exorcist, the antagonist is The Devil itself and his main mission, is to rule over the world corrupting everything on his way. It’s a character whom almost everyone is aware and familiar of so it would be easy to understand his intentions.
Act 1. Opening Shot.
The opening shot is around 30 seconds long but it depicts clearly two key elements of the film:
- The exterior of the house of the MacNeil family.
- The statue of virgin Mary in Dahlgren Chapel.
It’s clear that the two points will be key references in the film and one of the most followed theories, explains that this scene set up who will be under attack: the people in the house and the church.
Act 2. Something Bad/Mysterious Happens.
This act takes place in an excavation in Northern Iraq. An ancient artifact is found by the archeologists. This artifact has the shape of the head of some icon that represents the fight of the evil against evil.
Later on, the character known as a “Father” faces in the excavation place a mysterious encounter with a winged statue of the same kind of the artifact found, all surrounded by strange activities like two wild dogs fighting each other and a mysterious man staring at him.
Act 3. Meet the Hero.
Father Karras is briefly introduce at the very beginning of the film when Chris MacNeil is walking back home when she sees Karras talking to another colleague.
After a few sequences, we really meet Father Karras going back home to see his mother.
Act 4. Commitment.
In the case of this film, we can assume that the core composition of this nine-act composition is a two-goal structure.
The first and wrong-goal, can be depicted as the mental and physical process that the protagonists follow in order to help Regan with her disease. One of the key points of the Act 4 is that there is a “no turn back point“.
We can find this point when, after the visits to multiple specialists of all types, Chris MacNeil reaches Father Karras asking for his help.
Father Karras was already reached by the Lieutenant Kinderman but he was not aware of the real problem until Chris meets him and explained all the issues that Regan is having and the possibility of being possessed.
From the moment that Father Karras promises to help her, the commitment is fulfilled as there is not turning back for him.
Act 5. Go for the Wrong Goal.
The priest starts to help Chris visiting Regan in order to help to cure her disease.
Father Karras is disoriented with Regan’s symptoms, there are some points that seem to be inexplicable (Regan knowing about his deceased mother, impersonating the metro vagabond…) where others doesn’t fit in a possession case (the false holy water, speaking english backwards).
Karras is out of his natural environment (key point of Act 5) and even he founds himself not capable of doing the job, he gets stronger as he pass by the different tests that The Devil (Regan) puts him on.
Act 6. Reversal.
As a general rule, this act starts when the oldest piece of information is given revealing the seminal incident.
There is a sequence where two bishops are discussing who is going to help Father Karras and the name of the Father Merrin shows up, explaining how he faced The Devil in the past and it was close to kill him during an exorcism in Africa.
This clue explains why The Devil knows about him when he says his name reversely in front of Father Karras at Regan’s room and also, we can see the amazing transition scene with Father Merrin receiving the message about the exorcism and The Devil “waking up”.
Act 7. Go for the New Goal.
Father Karras is finally aware that The Devil really exists inside Regan’s and he has to defeat him (the new goal).
This act is also called “the comeback” because the protagonist starts off in an inferior position and gradually becomes even to the antagonist.
One of the characteristics of Act 7 is the existence of a “ticking clock” that orchestrates the action, here the timer is Regan’s body integrity as The Devil’s intentions is to destroy and corrupt it before they are able to save it.
We have some key points that define Act 7 and that are fulfilled in The Exorcist:
- Often a secondary character dies: Father Merrin lose his life against The Devil.
- The protagonist is tested severely: Father Karras is defeated several times until he faces The Devil.
- The see-saw between a credible defeat and an unlikely comeback.
This act ends when Father Karras finally defeats The Devil releasing Regan from her curse.
Act 8. Resolution
The closing point of The Exorcist on it’s last sequences shows Regan being totally amnesic of what happened to her, kissing and hugging Father Dyer like thanking The Church for her recovery.
As we can see, The Exorcist complies with the nine-act structure very well. The reader should remember that this analysis is only based on how the movie is structure, the real intentions of the author and the possible theories of the different sequences should be analyze with a proper film review.
From my point of view, trying to analyse films based on the most known approach of the three-act structure, it’s more difficult and messy, as the viewer, has to made a bigger effort trying to identify the different sections inside each one of the acts: