The Ninth Configuration (1980) — The Exorcist guy looks at faith through a weird lens

“Infinite goodness is creating a being you know, in advance, is going to complain.”

Justin’s rating: The Eighth Configuration is a Happy Meal

Justin’s review: This conversation is at the crux of The Ninth Configuration, an elusive cult drama by The Exorcist’s William Peter Blatty:

Colonel Kane: You’re convinced that God is dead because there’s evil in the world.

Captain Cutshaw: Correct.

Colonel Kane: Then why don’t you think He’s alive because of the goodness in the world?

Theological debates fly in this, perhaps one of the oddest crazy people movies of all time. The Ninth Configuration is a difficult movie to summarize, mostly because it outright defies being labeled into simple genres. It’s partially an “insane folk are hilarious” comedy, partially a post-Vietnam war flick, partially a film about faith, and partially an otherworldly fantasy. I don’t know quite where to begin, and when one doesn’t know where to begin, start at the beginning. Fine.

It opens with military psychologist, Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), arriving to take over treatment at an Army mental institution. Said institution is actually a German castle (don’t ask) which was relocated to the Sierra northwest (didn’t I say not to ask?). There, the stony-faced Kane encounters true loonies — a dude who thinks he’s Superman, a guy who wants to perform Shakespeare with dogs, a man who keeps pretending to be a doctor. This is a fallout of the Vietnam war, and these men’s behaviors are explained away as being their reactions to seeing the horror over there, or, perhaps, trying to fake being crazy to get out of there.

Kane’s ultimate challenge, however, is the explosive Captain Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut who for some reason freaked out right before a launch and had to be taken away. Cutshaw rips Kane’s office apart, testing his new shrink, and ultimately confronting him with one of the key questions of humanity: Is there a God, and if so, how do you know He exists?

Kane is unnervingly on the side of “Yes” and “Because true love exists in this world” as the answers — but Cutshaw wants more proof than that. He wants God (“Foot”, as he calls Him, citing God’s tendency to smite things) to make Himself known and give Cutshaw a clear sign. But as Cutshaw challenges Kane, Kane deals with some unknown previous torment that has ripped his soul apart and somehow started to heal again.

Interesting tie-in between this film and The Exorcist: in Exorcist, the demon-possessed girl encounters a certain astronaut (hmm…) and evilly spouts, “You’re going to die up there.” Evil is passed on to this character in the form of doubts and a falling out of faith. Cool, huh?

I won’t lie to you; I was expecting so much more out of this movie, considering how praised it was from the many people who recommended it to me. I had to chalk it up to this being a very relative experience: how much you may or may not like this film will depend on how personally impacted you’ll be by the finale. If it doesn’t do it for you, then it’s a good, solid film that is a mite bit too slow, ponderous and sedated.

I loathe to say I was underwhelmed by the total effect, because at the same time I really enjoyed some of the deeper points it was trying to make about God and our place in the universe. Blatty wrote this (initially a book called “Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane”) as a way to explore the crux of his Catholic faith, and he intelligently looks at the reasoning behind God’s existence. Does God not exist, because of all of the evil and death that He would have to at least allow to happen in our world; or does God exist, because of the highly contradictory fact that we as humans have the capacity for goodness, for self-sacrifice in the name of love? Is it easier to swallow the thought that the universe is one of the most improbable random feats of evolution, or that an intelligent hand guided its creation and our place in it? Why do we fear death so much, unless we have a deeply ingrained sense of being meant for an immortal life?

These are all thoughts to chew on that The Ninth Configuration dishes out, but it never stops the show cold to thump us on the head with preachy notions. Kane doesn’t quite know how to respond to Cutshaw’s demands, but he is willing to give it the old college try anyway. Keach gets a lot of acclaim for his simmering acting, which gradually grows until you can’t even begin to guess which emotions are about to boil over. This, I can appreciate.

But a good message wrapped up in a dry, stale book doesn’t necessarily make it a classic, either. The Ninth Configuration is cult by nature, but also only borderline entertainment as a movie. I can’t ever see myself watching it again, but I suppose there’s enough here to justify a couple hours of soul-searching and cheetos hunting.

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