Wednesday, 20 April 2016

the ninth configuration

the ninth configuration tells the story of a military-owned insane asylum populated with soldiers suffering from mental illness. the military are concerned that the men may be faking it so they bring in a new army psychiatrist, colonel kane (stacy keach), who will attempt to unravel the problem with his unorthodox methods. in practicing these methods kane comes into contact with sgt. christian, a former astronaut who challenges kane to prove the existence of god in a world full of suffering.

this isn’t a film that’s easy to describe, i mean it’s a kind of an absurdist theological comedy-thriller, like catch-22 and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest with some god stuff in there as well. that’s what makes it work, the fact that you will never have seen anything else like it, but it also makes it a really tough watch at times. there are moments where the absurdity is so extreme that it descends into pure farce, but then the very next scene will contain a really raw, emotional moment followed by a scene that shocks you back into the drama of the story. the fact that writer-director william pater blatty (who also wrote the exorcist, but if you're reading my blog you already know that) wrote two versions of the novel on which it is based (a comedy version and a straight dramatic version) and has re-edited the film a number of times suggests that even he doesn’t know what it’s really about.

perhaps it’s the atheist in me but i found all the god talk in this film just as crazy as moses gunn’s character thinking he is superman or jason miller’s character putting on a production of hamlet with a cast of dogs. i actually found it somewhat surprising when at the end of the film it becomes apparent that the question of the existence of god is a central element to the story. however, i’m not even sure that’s a criticism because the world blatty presents and the world that has ruined these men is a world without god to a degree so suggesting that an insane man can be cured by the answer to that question actually makes sense.

the ninth configuration is essentially built on two performances – stacy keach as kane and stephen powers as christian. both men do an incredible job at portraying not only levels of madness but also degrees of humanity. [the looks they share in the climactic bar scene speak volumes with barely any lines of dialogue. keach in particular is fantastic as a man perpetually on the verge of cracking himself. there’s also a brilliant performance from ed flanders as kane’s contemporary - a fellow doctor who has given up on the idea of curing any of the patients, except one.

the film has an odd, stagey style with some scenes containing ten minutes of dialogue or more delivered between two actors in the same room. as impressive as the castle is as a set, it begins to feel claustrophobic after we’ve spent the whole film there. when we do leave is for me when the film really picks up. the bar scene towards the end is one of the most tense, bizarre and well-crafted sequences i’ve ever seen, and it's kind of frustrating because it almost seems at odds with the rest of the film. it’s hard to talk about the bar scene without spoiling the film, but the ninth configuration is worth a watch just for that sequence alone.

overall, the ninth configuration is a confusing and often chaotic film but notably it never feels messy; there is clearly method to the madness, it’s just not always obvious where that method is taking us. with the protagonists being as crazy as the film it’s really hard to sympathise, root for or even care about what’s happening at times, all you can do is sit back and try to make some kind of sense of the whole thing. luckily this dvd release has been crammed with extras including an archive featurette in which mark kermode raves about the film. there is clearly something important and special happening on screen in the ninth configuration, i’m just not sure blatty has figured out the best way to show it to us yet and i’m not sure i have the patience to look for it.

second sight release the ninth configuration on dvd and blu-ray on 25 april 2016

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