Boundaries-Pushing Director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, and many more, dead at 87.

The film world mourned the loss of a true cinematic legend on August 7th, 2023, with the passing of William Friedkin. Having lived a long and prolific life, Friedkin left an indelible mark on the industry through his innovative and impactful contributions. While his departure leaves a void, his legacy and the impact of his work will continue to resonate for generations to come and will remain relics of a time when mainstream films were given to genius auteurs, and it wasn’t all blockbuster IP. 

Friedkin’s filmography is a testament to his exceptional storytelling abilities and his commitment to pushing boundaries. I actually had a conversation recently about whether he had a three-film run that rivaled Coppola, and could therefore be called the greatest of all time. His three-film run of The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), and Sorcerer (1977) stands as a remarkable achievement, and in my opinion, is at least in the conversation as greatest ever.

The French Connection, with its gritty portrayal of crime and relentless pursuit, earned Friedkin the Academy Award for Best Director and remains a quintessential example of 1970s American cinema. The Exorcist (1973) redefined the horror genre, becoming a cultural phenomenon and cementing Friedkin’s status as a master filmmaker. Sorcerer (1977) showcased his ability to create tension and suspense in an entirely different context, with its gripping tale of desperate men transporting volatile cargo through treacherous terrain.

The Exorcist is more than just a horror movie and resonates with the profound impact the film has had on audiences and its deep exploration of religious themes. While the film is undeniably one of the most terrifying ever made, Friedkin’s approach demonstrates how it transcends genre boundaries to become a powerful study of faith, good versus evil, and the human condition.

Friedkin’s decision to approach The Exorcist from a Western film archetype (the old and younger gunslingers versus the evil from an outside environment who has come to town) underscores the film’s universal themes and its ability to resonate with audiences beyond the horror genre. By framing the narrative within the context of a battle between good and evil, the film taps into timeless storytelling elements that have fascinated humanity for centuries. This approach allows the film to connect with viewers on a deeper level, evoking questions about the nature of spirituality, the existence of evil, and the limits of human understanding.

The film’s complex relationship with religious communities is a testament to its layered portrayal of faith. While some religious groups criticized The Exorcist for its explicit depiction of demonic possession, others saw the film as a thought-provoking exploration of the power of faith and the struggle against malevolent forces. It was the film that, for a moment, as a teenager, made me consider going into the seminary and a life of faith. 

Friedkin’s impact extended beyond The Exorcist and his iconic ‘70s run, as he continued to challenge conventions and deliver thought-provoking narratives throughout his career. He directed a diverse range of films, from crime dramas like To Live and Die in L.A. to psychological thrillers like Cruising, leaving an enduring mark on each genre he explored.

Friedkin’s late-career resurgence with films like Bug and Killer Joe is further proof of his lasting talent and his ability to create challenging, thought-provoking cinema. These films not only reasserted his directorial prowess but also demonstrated his willingness to tackle unconventional and daring material, proving that he was far from being a director of the past.

Bug, released in 2006, is an intense psychological thriller adapted from the play of the same name by Tracy Letts. The film delves into themes of paranoia (especially in a post-9/11 perspective), obsession, and the fragility of the human mind. Friedkin’s masterful direction heightens the tension, creating an unsettling atmosphere that keeps viewers on edge. By successfully translating the play’s claustrophobic intensity onto the screen, Friedkin showcased his ability to handle intricate character dynamics and to maintain a sense of unease throughout the narrative.

Killer Joe, released in 2011, marked another collaboration between Friedkin and Letts. The film’s darkly comedic yet disturbing tone, coupled with its unflinching exploration of taboo subjects, solidified Friedkin’s reputation as a director who was back and was unafraid to push boundaries. The story of a police detective who becomes embroiled in a twisted and dangerous plot is a showcase of Friedkin’s ability to extract captivating performances by helping Matthew McConaughey give one of his best ever in the midst of his efforts to prove himself as a more substantial actor.

These films not only demonstrated Friedkin’s directorial skills but also highlighted his keen eye for collaboration. His collaboration with Tracy Letts allowed him to tap into thought-provoking source material that challenged both him and his audience. By choosing projects that showcased his artistic growth and versatility, Friedkin reestablished himself as a director capable of crafting films that provoke discussion and leave a lasting impact.

Friedkin’s passing represents not just the loss of a great director, but also the departure of a true trailblazer who shaped the cinematic landscape. Friedkin’s legacy remains alive in the countless filmmakers who were inspired by his work, and in the enduring impact of his films on the audiences who continue to appreciate and engage with his storytelling.

As we reflect on Friedkin’s contributions, the ongoing debates about his place in cinematic history remind us of the profound influence he had on film and the enduring relevance of his work. He rarely gets included when talking about the ’70s filmmakers like Coppola and Spielberg and De Palma, and in many ways, his style isn’t as easy to identify as theirs is. But the one thing that rang through all his films was his immense talent and ability to push the envelope, which will be missed.