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The Ninth Configuration

1980, USA, William Peter Blatty

Sometimes you see a film which is completely unique. The Ninth Configuration is one of those films, which is both its strength and its weakness. It’s based on the novel Twinkle Twinkle ‘Killer’ Kane by William Peter Blatty, which, despite his rather stodgy prose, is very interesting.

The plot of the film revolves around a private asylum, run by the US military, which serves as a rest-home for insane soldiers. The government is unconvinced of their mental state, and a psychiatrist, Colonel Hudson Kane is hired to judge whether the men are really mad, or simply faking it. Among the inmates are Cutshaw, an astronaut who flipped out during  the countdown and now refuses to go to the moon; Spoor, who is adapting the works of  Shakespeare for a cast of dogs; Bemish, who spends his time trying to walk through a wall; and Fromme, who imagines he is a doctor.

In print, this sounds very silly, and it is indicative of Blatty’s achievement that, in the film, it is completely believable. The performance by Scott Wilson, as Cutshaw, goes beyond being simply good; he inhabits the character completely, and forces the audience to   recognise the desperation which hides behind Cutshaw’s irrational behaviour. In particular, he has one speech, when he explains his reasons for refusing to go to the moon, that ranks as one of the most deeply moving of screen moments. In the pivotal role of Kane, Stacy Keach demonstrates once again that he is an actor of great skill. Without spoiling  the film for people who haven’t seen it - and as it is pretty obscure, there are a lot of  those - Keach has to achieve a character change that is essential to the plot, and, to be honest, not entirely unexpected. This character change occurs during a stunning set-piece fight in a roadside bar, which is very brutal and rivetingly well choreographed. Blatty is a master of timing; events build slowly, but the climaxes give extraordinary value.

The whole cast are excellent; it’s particularly entertaining to see Jason Miller in a humorous role, well away from the angst of Fr Karras. Ed Flanders, another of Blatty’s favourite  actors, is impressive in the - mostly reactive - role of the asylum doctor, who plays a key part in the climactic revelations. The climax contains the main problem of the film - the key revelation is just too much to accept. It doesn’t sound like a practical step for the army to take at all, and also makes certain earlier events nonsensical. Given the truth, would Colonel Kane be allowed to take Cutshaw off the base and to church, completely unguarded ? However, the climax also triumphs on a metaphysical level. Blatty demands a major act of faith on the part of the audience, and manages to reward it convincingly.  Interesting to compare his success with Nic Roeg’s Cold Heaven which asks the audience for a similar act of faith, but fails to justify it. Here, Blatty isn’t dealing with small issues - he’s gone for the big ones. The film is all about the possibility of God existing in a world that is filled with indications that he doesn’t. There is also a lengthy, and rather touching, debate about the possibility of life after death, which culminates in the very moving final scene.

This isn’t a film for everyone. Some people complain that it is too talky, that the plot is merely an excuse for philosophical discussions and that the “twist” is simply idiotic. But, as in Exorcist 3, Blatty asks the audience to go along with him for awhile, to give him some space to develop his ideas. In The Ninth Configuration, despite faltering occasionally, he is triumphant. That we never got to see his cut of Exorcist 3 is a tragedy.

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