Review: The Ninth Configuration (1980)
If you mention you’re going to watch The Ninth Configuration (1980), The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own novel about insane military veterans at a special psychiatric care facility, you’ll likely hear about how wild and insane the film is. Well, yes, it is, but also, no: that aspect isn’t the main attraction of the film. The Ninth Configuration is at times a psychological drama, a comic farce, and a meditation on religion and suffering; it is full of eccentric and damaged characters, but it also has a light touch, a sense of humour, and deep faith in redemption. By blending these multiple genres the film earns its decidedly off-beat reputation and initial appeal. But, ultimately, it is a powerful work that explores its themes to moving effect.
The film begins in the waning days of the Vietnam War, before the advent of Reaganism and retrenchment of US nationalism. This is an America unsure of itself, licking its wounds after the loss in Vietnam, and suffering an existential crisis after the failure of the counterculture. A new commanding officer, Colonel Hudson Kane (Stacy Keach), arrives at a US military psychiatric centre set up in an old castle in the Pacific Northwest (shot in Hungary, the castle setting adds a great deal to the film’s aesthetic). He will oversee, along with military doctor, Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders), a number of patients, almost all of whom went “insane” after experiencing combat in Vietnam or just before being deployed. One of these military patients is an astronaut, Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who bailed at the last minute from a mission to the moon.
After introductions, Kane reveals to Fell that he feels a great deal of sympathy with the mental state of the patients of the facility. He is uncertain of how to go on in the face of the brutality in the world, and explains that he has been experiencing the dreams of his brother Vincent “Killer” Kane, a member of the Marine Corp who committed atrocities in Vietnam. Rather than try to cure the patients of their madness, Kane indulges them in their obsessions and in the roles they play, hoping to try to win their trust, but also concealing a deeper purpose. Kane’s relationship with Cutshaw, who rejects the possibility of God and goodness in the world, becomes the central fulcrum around which both the script and its thematic interest in the possibility of goodness and redemption will operate.
Perhaps the clarifying scene in this film is when Lt. Reno (in a brilliant performance from The Exorcist’s Jason Miller) expounds upon two interpretations of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Reno, one of the inmates of the facility, is keeping busy staging Shakespeare for dogs. The question that has challenged literary theorists, explains Reno, is whether the Prince of Denmark is insane, or is merely feigning insanity. He asks Kane and Fell, who both say, he must be insane. Reno responds that Hamlet is not, but is instead pretending to be mad. All the suffering Hamlet has endured, the loss of his father, the appearance of the ghost, the loss of his girlfriend, and the marriage of his beloved mother to his hated uncle, it would make sense if he were to go mad from it all. But, explains Reno, Hamlet recognizes madness as the appropriate response, and so conforms his behaviour to its expression. He is not mad, but since madness is the only proper response, he pretends to be.
Reno’s point, taken in the shadow of the atrocities of the 20th century and the “Death of God”—in the Nietzschean sense that the modern world is bereft of a moral order—is that madness is perhaps eminently reasonable. Not “reason”, which as he says allowed, for instance, America to justify dropping atomic bombs on Japan, but an authentic human response to the chaos of the world. The Ninth Configuration likewise attempts to be a work of art that engages with that chaos, and further, to provide a possible answer to that chaos.
The Ninth Configuration, like The Exorcist, gains its power through its confrontation with existential questions in the face of a modernity that increasingly offers fewer answers. For Billy Cutshaw, a seeker of truth, the expanse of space confronted him with a loneliness he could not fathom, forcing him to turn to despair. The film turns on Kane’s own revelation around halfway through the film, that his mission is more than what it seems. He is a Hamlet himself, playing a role that even he himself does not quite understand. He is a mourner seeking redemption, but who suspects that only a metaphorical “shock treatment” can possibly help the world to make sense. The film, which begins as a psychiatric drama, in the vein of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, becomes something else; an existential, Catholic-minded grappling with the seeming chasm between the evil of the world, especially the evil that we do, and the madness of a story that suggests God might still speak in it.
The film draws its power in part from the numerous excellent performances on display and its rich, mythic, mise-en-scene. The cast of supporting actors is wonderful, particularly Jason Miller, Father Karras from The Exorcist himself, who appropriately plays the Shakespearean clown, delivering the laughs and yet making everyone aware of the absurdity around them. Stacy Keach is understated in his portrayal of Kane, a man willing to take on the most degrading of humiliations for the sake of his patients, but whom also has a breaking point, one he may have already reached in the past. Equally important to the film’s emotional and narrative effect is Scott Wilson’s Cutshaw, who is able to communicate his pain with a smile, to tell a joke, but have you realize that joke is the most important thing in the world. Ed Flanders, as Colonel Fell, functions as the film’s human control factor, slowly revealing his character’s depths and importance.
I realize in each case, as I describe these characters, they are split in many ways, or they reveal hidden depths. The fact that all the main actors rise to the challenge is a testimony to the performances here, but also reinforces how The Ninth Configuration thematically answers the possibility of goodness and redemption through action. In this sense, the film is a Christological drama, consciously suggesting that even as the old guarantee of the Cross may seem foolish to many, it is in the “roles” we play that we find redemption, and that seems to be how Blatty understands the idea of “Christ in us.”
Blatty is working in the tradition of New Hollywood here, but (due to a financing deal with PepsiCo) he shot the film in Hungary, in an abandoned castle. It is strange (especially since the castle is ostensibly set in the Pacific Northwest), but it lends the film a surreal, almost mythic setting. Furthermore, it literalizes the idea of these “last men,” refugees from the modern world, damaged veterans hiding in the ruins of European history. The question of whether the old ideas are truly meaningless, or whether it’s possible to fashion a “home” out of them is literalized in the setting. In the early scenes the film often cuts away to insert shots of the castle’s gargoyles and statuary; in these Ozu-like “pillow shots,” it reminds us of the context and who is observing these oddball, mad men at play: stones that cannot speak, or symbols of a metaphysical order?
The end of the New Hollywood era in 1980 is marked by many films that have been claimed as film maudits (the “cursed film,” which doesn’t find acclaim or appreciation in its time). Such films push beyond the confines of what was seen to be the purview of 1970s topics, while at the same time flowing naturally from the experiences and events of the decade. A film like The Ninth Configuration probably couldn’t be made today. It would become too overblown, the symbolism too weighed down and overdetermined, in a film that already lacks subtlety. It would lack the light touch that Blatty brings here.
The wonderful film that is The Ninth Configuration is both a product of its moment of production and the possibilities, or lack-thereof, of the post-Vietnam pre-Reagan era. I immediately feel strongly drawn to it for all ways it explores a particular thematic overlap of Christianity and Nietzschean nihilism in an imaginative and entertaining context. But it is also one that I can imagine revisiting often, because it doesn’t just tell a story in order to answer its thematic obsessions. It invites us to get to know some people.
9 out of 10
The Ninth Configuration (1980, USA/Hungary)
Written and directed by William Peter Blatty; based on Blatty’s novel; starring Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Moses Gun, Tom Atkins, Robert Loggia, Richard Lynch, Neville Brand.