Films Misunderstood: Hollywood’s Best Retroactively Redeemed Failures

Films Misunderstood: Hollywood’s Best Retroactively Redeemed Failures


People love, in general, to talk about failure, especially as it applies to the movies: stories of bombs or flops or unmitigated disasters of any kind are the industry equivalent of celebrity gossip, and they usually run about as deep. But an even more salient topic of conversation than a perceived failure’s dismal performance at the box office is the lashing it receives at the hands of critics, which, if universal (and scathing) enough, often garners more attention than the failed film itself. And once that reputation has settled in, it’s practically impossible to shake: we still talk of The Phantom Menace in the hushed tones reserved for funeral processions, the very mention of its name cause for knowing snickers and recollections of widespread disdain; few could ever approach it for the first time free of those damning preconceptions. John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s ostentatious sci-fi epic and a colossal loser at the box office, is only the latest in a long line of anticipated blockbusters beset by pervasive pans and walk-outs, the harsh words hurled its way amplified, at record volume and in record time, by rapid-fire tweets warning others to stay away. It barely stood a chance: a nine-figure marketing budget was nothing compared to the trusted words of those who had seen it and sworn it off straight away, and it’s unlikely, even if it finds admirers, that its general reputation in the public consciousness will ever fully recover.

And yet, every so often, a film widely considered to be a failure reemerges years later as a newly respected critical favorite, its reputation salvaged on the grounds that it was once misunderstood. In some cases, the film finds a new audience through ironic reappraisal, which is often how bad films become cult classics–an odd or obscure work that couldn’t find love on the mainstream theatrical circuit finds fans on home video or as a midnight movie. Other times, though, the effect is more substantial: a younger generation of critics might heave a forgotten film up from the muck of its battered reputation, rediscovering it as a forgotten classic or great work never given its proper due. These films, the orphans taken in and dearly loved, are some of the most interesting cases of critical appraisal and reappraisal in cinema history, and it’s worth exploring how and why their reputations were rescued–as well as why their reputations were abysmal in the first place. What’s most fascinating, of course, are the implications for contemporary criticism: these considerations might cause one to hesitate before tearing into any new film, because what seems so obviously bad today might, in another thirty or forty years, come to be regarded as a masterpiece. And nobody wants to be the one to have short-sightedly slammed a classic in the making. Following are eight films which, at the time of release, received vicious reviews but have, in the years following, become lauded as great works, in one way or another.

The List:

8. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)

nullWidely dismissed when it came out on implicitly sexist grounds—its overtly feminist bent didn’t sit well with the mid-50s status quo—Nicholas Ray’s Trucolor western epic Johnny Guitar has finally, over the last decade-plus, emerged as something of a critical darling, owing in no small part to its director’s ever-increasing prestige. Unavailable on Region 1 DVD for far too long, the film recently made its long-awaited home video debut, thanks to a sterling Bluray from Olive Films, whose efforts will undoubtedly introduce this daringly revisionist classic to the newly receptive audience it has always deserved. Scoring only one vote in the 2002 iteration of Sight And Sound’s once-per-decade poll of the greatest films of all time, Johnny Guitar appeared on an impressive 8 ballots this year—as good an indication as any of the film’s gradually ballooning reputation.

What The Critics Said Then:

– “Joan Crawford is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades. Neither Miss Crawford nor director Nicholas Ray has made it any more than a flat walk-through of western cliches. That’s about all there is to it…the color is slightly awful and the Arizona scenery only fair. Let’s put it down as a fiasco.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

– “The maddest Western you are likely to encounter this year. It has not only male but female gunfighters. It was probably inevitable that sooner or later somebody would try to change the pattern of Westerns, but I can state authoritatively that this twist is doomed.” – John McCarten, The New Yorker

– “Just plain pathetic.” – Mae Tinee, Chicago Daily Tribune

What The Critics Say Now:

– “A miraculous movie that should never be far from screens, large or small . . . a proto-feminist masterwork.” – Richard Brody, The New Yorker

– “It’s about time it was acclaimed for what it really is: a genuine western film classic.” – TV Guide’s Movie Guide

– “For all its violence, this is a surpassingly tender, sensitive film, Ray’s gentlest statement of his outsider theme.” – David Kehr, Chicago Reader

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2002 Poll: 1

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2012 Poll: 8

7. Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)

nullWhile it’s true that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was received with an alarming amount of consternation in 1958, its status as a canonical classic has gone uncontested for so long that there wouldn’t be much point in speaking of its critical redemption here (though going from perceived failure to this year’s Sight and Sound-certified Greatest Film of All Time is indeed a commendable feat). Meanwhile, Hitchcock’s other misunderstood intellectual opus, the even more fiercely maligned psychological drama Marnie, must still contest with the glib dismissals of confounded critics to this day. Only outlier fans champion its heady, oblique virtues with any regularity, though it’s invigorating to see their numbers grow with each passing year: in a recent (and informal) poll of the Top 5 Hitchcock films conducting by film critics on Twitter, Marnie emerged as a surprise favorite, particularly among young, web-savvy cinephiles, for whom Marnie perhaps seems an appealingly obscure favorite. And considering Hitchcock’s tendency to split the vote (and Vertigo’s substantial win), 9 votes for Marnie in this year’s Sight And Sound poll is certainly an impressive showing in its own right.

What The Critics Said Then:

– “Hitchcock must plead guilty to pound foolishness, for Marnie is a clear miss. A strong suspicion arises that Mr. Hitchcock is taking himself too seriously—perhaps the result of listening to too many esoteric admirers. Granted that it's still Hitchcock—and that's a lot—dispensing with the best in acting, writing and even technique is sheer indulgence. When a director decides he's so gifted that all he needs is himself, he'd better watch out.” – Eugene Archer, The New York Times

What The Critics Say Now:

– “Universally despised on its first release, Marnie remains one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest and darkest achievements.” – David Kehr, Chicago Reader

– “Viewed from the safe distance of four decades after its release, Marnie, perhaps even more than The Birds, emerges as the director’s definitive late-period masterpiece.” – Fernando F. Croce,

– “Considered a misfire at the time, it now looks like late-period Hitchcock at his most Hitchcockian.” – Keith Phipps, The AV Club

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2002 Poll: 4

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2012 Poll: 9

6. Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970)

nullMichelangelo Antonioni had, by 1970, long since established himself as one of the world’s premier art house directors, boasting a handful of already certified classics as well as a slew of newer, more daring coups. Blowup, his most recent effort, had seen his cache expand considerably, garnering characteristic acclaim but also, for the first time, making a remarkable dent in British and American popular culture by becoming a kind of crossover mainstream hit. The stage was thus set for Antonioni’s rising acclaim to accelerate, as he shfted the gaze of his perceptive Italian eye from the modish world of U.K. fashion photography (Blowup’s appealing milieu) to the similarly youth-oriented landscape of the American protest movement, where he would shoot Zabriskie Point. An unmitigated commercial and critical failure, Zabriskie was regarded as a failed replication of his previous success at best and an uniquely awful disaster at worst; it would bring Antonioni’s career to a grinding halt (he didn’t make the Jack Nicholson-starring existential drama The Passenger until 1975, a full five years later), and it would kill his box office prospects for good. It’s only recently, with the added clarity of historical distance, that Zabriskie Point has found itsself reclaimed by critics able to look past facile faults in acting or dialogue to see the clarity and intensity of its vision.

What The Critics Said Then:

– “This is such a silly and stupid movie  . . . our immediate reaction is pity.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

– “For the rest of us—with the possible exception of highway engineers (the film includes a lot of lovely aerial shots of macadam roads snaking into blue distances—Zabriskie Pointwill remain a movie of stunning superficiality, another example of a noble artistic impulse short-circuited in a foreign land.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times

What The Critics Say Now:

– “Almost 40 years later, Zabriskie Point exists to teach us more exact and sensitive perceptions about a cultural moment that its original audience was too close to appropriately observe.” – Armond White, New York Press

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2002 Poll: 0

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2012 Poll: 3

5. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

nullIt’s hard to believe given the nearly unanimous praise heaped upon it now (since its rerelease in the year 2000), but there was a time when William Friedkin’s horror classic The Exorcist was considered the height of insensitive vulgarity, a picture as trashy as it was needlessly provocative. And it wasn’t merely those offended by its overtly sacrilegious content that found themselves fervently opposed to the spectacle: perfectly respectable (and secular!) intellectuals turned their noses up in disgust at what was widely considered to be the exploitative pits. The grand irony, of course, is that The Exorcist stands now as a pillar of fright-night respectability, the horror genre’s premier prestige picture and basically its permanent gold standard. You still see it crop up whenever a contemporary slasher pic allegedly lowers the bar: critics beleaguered by cheap gross-out tactics and moral repugnancy yearn, by comparison, for the halcyon days of 1973, when level-headed filmmakers still knew how to deliver traditional, well-rounded scares. Go figure.

What The Critics Said Then:

– “A practically impossible film to sit through…establishes a new low for grotesque special effects. The care that Mr. Friedkin and Mr. Blatty have taken with the physical production…is obviously intended to persuade us to suspend disbelief. But to what end? To marvel at the extent to which audiences will go to escape boredom by shock and insult.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times

– “Vile and brutalizing. Friedkin and Blatty seem to care nothing for their characters as people, only as victims—props to be abused, hurled about the room, beaten and, in one case, brutally murdered.” – Jay Cocks, TIME Magazine

What The Critics Say Now:

– “Some movies aren’t just movies. They’re closer to voodoo. They channel currents larger and more powerful than themselves.” – Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

– “An early indication of how seriously pulp can be taken when religious faith is involved, this 1973 horror thriller is highly instructive as well as unnerving.” – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2002 Poll: 4

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2012 Poll: 3

4. Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

nullLumped in for thirty-plus years with only the most notorious box office failures, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is still to this day regarded as the ultimate industry cautionary tale, a warning of what happens when one man’s dictatorial demands are permitted to run free. The film bankrupted its studio, United Artists, and it remains one of the least financially successful films ever made. Stories from the set of its protracted, preposterously over-budget shoot sound like a producer’s worst nightmare: Cimino commanded his crew to construct elaborate sets with meticulous specifications, insisting they be torn down and reconstructed anew on a whim, and he would even, according to Steven Bach’s tell-all book Final Cut, have particular trees uprooted in order to replant them on sets where Cimino believed they’d fit. But anecdotes detailing the uncontrollable creative impulses of a director made out to be mad with power have an unfortunate (and deeply misleading) consequence: they eclipse the film as a work on its own, making it practically impossible to divorce Heaven’s Gate from its storied production. Thankfully, the critical tide is beginning to shift: a new director’s cut screened, to overwhelming acclaim, at this year’s New York Film Festival. That version is also being honored with a DVD and Bluray release from the Criterion Collection—a sure sign that, in some circles at least, Cimino’s efforts have finally been vindicated.

What The Critics Said Then:

– “A study in wretched excess. This movie is $36 million thrown to the winds. It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I’ve seen Paint Your Wagon.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

– “Fails to work on almost every level.” – Variety

– “An unqualified disaster.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times

– “It really is a stinker.” – David Kehr, Chicago Reader

What The Critics Say Now:

– “For all the abuse heaped on it, this is a majestic and lovingly detailed Western which simultaneously celebrates and undermines the myth of the American frontier.” – Tom Milne, Time Out

– “A great movie which did not deserve the lousy reputation heaped on it by vituperative critics.”  – Phil Hall, Film Threat

– “Seen again it its original, nearly four-hour form, the film plays like an opium vision of American bloodshed. Gorgeous.” – Michael Atkinson, Village Voice

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2002 Poll: 1

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2012 Poll: 5

3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1993)

nullIn the early 1990s, it seemed that David Lynch could do no wrong: he was still feeling the afterglow of the critical and commercial success of both Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, two movies that introduced him to the American mainstream; his latest film, the madcap Nic Cage/Laura Dern fairy tale Wild At Heart, had just won the prestigious Palme D’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival; and his co-authored television series, Twin Peaks, had unexpectedly captured the popular imagination, becoming an international sensation. Alas, all the critical goodwill in the world couldn’t help Lynch in 1993, when his beloved show’s feature-length prequel/sequel arrived in theatres to widespread confusion, discomfort, and anger. Rarely is such vitriol spewed from the mouths of professional critics, even toward the other films on this list: something about the combination of anticipation for the film and the pedigree of its director opened the floodgates for scorn and fury, and pan after pan flowed through. But I’m pleased to see that my personal favorite Lynch film—a profoundly moving story of abuse and the reverberations of turmoil it sets off—has finally begun to get its critical due, being increasingly revisited and reconsidered even by those who’d initially dismissed it. At a still-meager three votes, it’s yet to really make a dent in the Sight And Sound poll, but hey: that’s three more votes than it received in 2002. That’s progress.

What The Critics Said Then:

– “Everything about Fire Walk With Meis a deception. It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times

– “Self-parody would seem too generous an assessment of Lynch’s aims and achievement.” – Geoff Andrew, Time Out

– “Profoundly self-indulgent.” – Rita Kempley, Washington Post

What The Critics Say Now:

– “Arguably Lynch’s most literal-minded creation. It’s also his most scatterbrained work—as well it should be considering that this undervalued, hallucinogenic gem should be approached as a collection of suffocated battles cries before Laura Palmer enters rapturously (and iconically) into the realm of the dead.” – Ed Gonzalez, SlantMagazine

– “Lynch’s finest film to date.” – Richard Luck, Film4

– “A Lynchian triumph.” Dan Jardine, All Movie Guide

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2002 Poll: 0

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2012 Poll: 3

2. Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)

nullPerhaps the most infamous critical failure on a list overloaded with them, Paul Verhoeven’s deeply misunderstood Showgirls has had a pretty brutal run over the last 17 years. Widely considered, both then and now, to be the epitome of shameless Hollywood trash, the film’s innumerable detractors have kicked its reputation for the dirt for so long and with such fervor that it seemed unlikely that its reputation could ever earn credibility even among its marginalized apologists. Even worse, though, are those young cynics who’ve endeavored to “redeem” Showgirls on the basis of relishing its apparent badness, cherishing it only with superficial so-bad-it’s-goodness irony; that makes the critical heavy-lifting of seeing Showgirls for the masterpiece it really is even more taxing and laborious, and it makes serious defenses of the film even harder to successfully mount (you know: those who detest Showgirls consider its defenders distasteful, while those who jokingly love Showgirls consider its other defenders elitist). You’d think, given Verhoeven’s reputation for smuggling exacting social satire into ostensibly low-brow entertainments, that critics would be more open to looking at Showgirls a little more closely. But serious reappraisals are popping up more and more frequently, and there are whispers throughout the critical community that suggest some welcome revisionism is imminent.

What The Critics Said Then:

– “The kind of movie that gives NC-17 a bad name. It’s exactly the kind of exercise in salacious pandering you already suspect it is. The story is so shabbily built that it can make no valid clam to motives other than the filmmakers’ mercenary desires to cash in on the public’s prurient interests. And even on this bottom-feeder level, Showgirls fails to deliver the goods.” – Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle

– "Showgirls" is an overcoat movie for men who don't want to be seen going into a porno theater. – Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

– “Call Showgirls appalling, pornographic, silly, trashy — and the filmmakers might say, “No kidding.” But Showgirls fails even on its own terms.” – San Francisco Gate

What The Critics Say Now:

– “Showgirls is truly one of the only 90s films that treats pop culture as a vibrant field of social economics and cerebral pursuit, and not merely tomorrow’s nostalgia-masturbation fodder. It is the very definition of the term “essential”.” – Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

– “Intelligently made by a smart director in full command of his powers.” – Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2002 Poll: 0

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2012 Poll: 1

1. A Perfect Getaway (David Twohy, 2009)

nullThough its still-recent release date and overall absence in any larger critical conversation make it a hard sell as a “redeemed” film in the same manner as Showgirls or Johnny Guitar, David Twohy’s criminally underappreciated thriller A Perfect Getaway is nevertheless a prime candidate for future reconsideration. Part of the problem with reevaluating failures, of course, is that it works best with the clarity of hindsight, and one can never know for sure what disasters will someday emerge as classics misunderstood in their own day. Still, the degree to which broadsheet journalists and mainstream critics of every variety misperceived A Perfect Getaway already baffles me, so perhaps it’s time to get an early start on the serious revisionism: Hardly the shallow, B-grade blockbuster it was made out to be in 2009, this is a film of surprising depth and nuance, a formally rigorous mystery intended as a critique of how audiences watch and understand the cinema, and in particular of our tendency to gather and process information only selectively. It articulates these themes with more sophistication than your average arthouse drama, and yet it unfolds with brisk economy of a classical Hollywood thriller (its visceral pleasures more than match its intellectual ones, to be sure). But it wasn’t even slammed as a pretentious failure; nobody cited excessive ambition or dreamy aspirations as the film’s fatal flaws. More tragically, nobody even noticed the depth of this thing: A Perfect Getaway was regarded by nearly every critic who saw it as, at best, a serviceable but ultimately very forgettable trifle. Only a handful of admirers saw through its thin veneer of sun-soaked beaches and tanned bodies to the near-perfect film beneath: the Toronto Film Critics Association very nearly awarded Timothy Olyphant their award for Best Supporting Actor (he walked away as the Runner Up), and several of the critics in that group have gone to bat for the film since (including Adam Nayman, perhaps its foremost defender, who has written extensively on the film’s merits for Reverse Shot). One only hopes that with the distance of time, more critics join the ranks. 

What The Critics Said Then:

“A cringingly self-aware, painfully verbose and somewhat smug motion picture, Getaway is itching to keep audiences guessing, but it’s far more successful at putting viewers to sleep.” – Brian Orndoff,

“A failure, and a highly flawed one at that.” – Bill Gibron,

What The Critics Say Now:

“It’s really all so elegant: Twohy reverses his characters’ positions–and the audiences’ way of relating to each pair–and in the same instant embraces his own true, painstakingly sublimated nature as a recklessly unashamed visual stylist. Form and content, molten and melted into one. If that’s not the only definition of great moviemaking, it’s one that I think holds up fine.” – Adam Nayman,

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2002 Poll: N/A

Number of votes on Sight And Sound’s 2012 Poll: 0

Calum Marsh is a frequent contributor to Slant Magazine.




"Human nature is violent," William Friedkin tells me, going on to say that he also likes Immanuel Kant's phrase "the crooked timber of humanity." As an artist, Friedkin is as blunt, matter-of-fact, and masterfully cynical as his initial statement suggests. His films indicate that a character's environment is, more often than not, what he reacts to when he snaps. Superior dramas like The French Connection (1971), To Live and Die in LA (1985), Cruising (1980), and Sorcerer (1977) are all about myopic obsessives, characters who are desperate to the point where they can't see how their actions have led them to become fatalistically self-involved. That same tendency towards self-harm is what makes many of Friedkin's movies bleakly and corrosively funny. For example, the hanky code scene in Cruising, where Al Pacino's undercover cop is comically baffled by the semiotics of the hanky code, is humorous because we're being encouraged to laugh as a man denies his own latent attraction to the subcultures he's investigating. 

So in that sense, it's not surprising that Killer Joe (2011), which Friedkin describes as his "darkest film yet," is a comedy. In it, Matthew McConaughey plays a corrupt, schizoid cop hired by desperate white trash to kill one of their own kin in order to collect a $50,000 life insurance policy. "Yes, it's a black comedy, in the way that Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy, nonetheless disturbing because of its subject matter," Friedkin told me Wednesday. He went on to tell me that with Killer Joe, he wanted to make a dark comedy that was direct and brutally "unsentimental." You can see that lack of sentimentality in the way that Friedkin uses Clarence Carter's "Strokin,'" a song that is about exactly what it sounds like what it's about, twice in Killer Joe. "I love 'Strokin'!' I think it's very funny and courageous. It's sort of a character on its own. It's kind of a statement on the all of the bullshit that surrounds today's films, kind of a reaction to that. It's not sentimental and the movie is not sentimental. It's funny, and if you really listen to it, it's a little dark." 

It actually makes sense that "Strokin'" is used during a scene in which a major character gets beaten to a pulp, a nasty choice but not excessive to the point of being gratuitous. For a filmmaker who has, over the years, continually pushed the envelope in his portrayal of violence on film, especially in films like The Exorcist (1973) and Cruising, that's saying a lot. "I thought I went as far as I needed to and no more or no less," Friedkin remarked.  He went on to say that he and his crew were surprised that the film got an NC-17 rating, in spite of its handful of scenes of full frontal nudity and over-the-top violence. Despite his surprise, Friedkin does not contest the rating: "None of us thought we'd get an NC-17, but when we did, I think we realized it's the correct rating. Because I'm not targeting teenagers. Once I got that rating, I knew I could hack that movie to pieces to get an R, but I didn't want to do that. I just didn't want to do that. So once they gave us an NC-17, the distribution company appealed it and they lost the appeal. So we left it alone."

Violence and sex are often the source of dark humor in Friedkin's films, a debt traceable to Friedkin's affinity for Henri-Georges Clouzot's films. Many of Clouzot's movies, like The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942) and Le Corbeau (1943) have a vicious sense of humor and are character-based. In fact, Friedkin's Sorcerer is a remake of Clouzot's Wages of Fear (1953), a masterful thriller about a group of broke truckers who go on a suicide mission to deliver highly unstable dynamite to a construction site deep in a South American forest. Friedkin has said in the most recent issue of Film Comment that he'd probably seen Clouzot's Diabolique upwards of 50 times, but he would never consider remaking it. "I love Clouzot's films," Friedkin beamed. "They're hard-edged and they're not sentimental. Diabolique is a very scary film. That nine minute sequence, without a word, is one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever seen."

But what makes Friedkin's films so unique is that sense of acidic humor stems from a perceptive view of the apathetic environments that breed his characters' obsessive and often inexplicable behavior. For example, in Rampage (1987), Friedkin follows the trial of a disturbed mass murderer shown to have Nazi paraphrenalia in his room, which is situated in the root cellar of a house ostensibly presided over by Twin Peaks star Grace Zabriskie. Both the defense seeking to prove that Zabriskie's son is legally insane and hence not in control of his actions, and the prosecuting attorneys who try to prove the defendant's guilt, produce evidence and witnesses that support their claims, leaving it up to the viewer to decide who is right and which factors matter most. 

Similarly, the abrupt demise of the corrupt cop William Petersen (of CSI and Manhunter) plays in Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA is not that shocking, given the context of the drama preceding his death. Petersen plays a character so myopically focused on arresting the counterfeiter responsible for the death of his partner that he can't see anything else around him, not even the vibrant Los Angeles that Friedkin practically makes a central protagonist of his story. "A lot of people found [the death of Petersen's character] shocking at the time, just as they found the death of Janet Leigh shocking in Psycho," Friedkin protested. But at the same time, it's only immediately jarring. Thematically, that violent death is hardly gratuitous.

That same focus on the ways environment and setting shape a character's identity is true of Cruising, a film possibly even more notorious than The Exorcist. In it, Pacino plays an undercover cop who descends from a position of feeling above-it-all—though reluctant to fully embrace the almost god-like, condescending perspective that comes with being a cop—into a struggle to repress latent feelings of homosexuality when he goes in search of a killer in the Meatpacking District’s S&M Clubs. The self-loathing mania that defines Pacino's character has been unfairly called a sign that Friedkin considers homosexuality an abnormal disease, but his character's actions tell a different story when looked at in context. For example, a pair of cops on patrol deliberately paraphrase Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle when they say, "Some day, a rain's going to come to wash all the scum off the streets." Friedkin says he remembered "overhearing that dialogue from cops that were patrolling the Meatpacking District, as it was then. That district is now completely gentrified. But that's the way cops talk. That's the attitude: all these people on the street, they're scum!" 

Friedkin went on to add that Randy Jurgenson, a NYC beat cop who worked with Friedkin on three films, including The French Connection, and was the main source of inspiration for Pacino's character in Cruising, didn't need to explicitly tell him how his undercover search affected his psyche. "[Randy] sort of resembled the victims, who were all dark-haired, with swarthy complexions and mustaches," Friedkin remarked. "And he was about the same height and the same build and he was assigned to attract the killer. And he told me his experiences and how the whole thing really screwed him up and bent his mind. And I remember never asking him further what he meant; I got it! "

The impotence and sociopathic feelings of powerlessness motivating characters like Pacino's character in Cruising and even McConaughey's in Killer Joe are crucial to what makes Friedkin's films so rich and also rather ugly. They have a pragmatic despair at their hearts because, to Friedkin, human behavior is gross and uncontrollable. When I asked him why he thought people were grasping at straws to qualify the "evil" motives behind the recent killings in Aurora, Colorado, Friedkin exclaimed, "Because there's no way to control human behavior, not even in China, where they basically have a dictatorship. And they have no ethnic differences whatsoever, no color differences. The reason why China has made such leaps forward economically is because they can control human behavior and punish it severely if it's at odds with the norm. In this country, we don't. We cannot control the norm. In this country, when you have democracy, there's nothing you can do to modify people's behavior." 

With that in mind, Friedkin's films appropriately function as Rorshach ink blot tests for viewer reactions. For example, the ending of The Exorcist comes after an exhaustive battle for the soul of a young child. That battle is eventually, though hardly inevitably, won, after one priest forcibly defenestrates himself. The calm following this cure is uneasy, at best, making it very easy for viewers to see what they want in that calm after the storm. "The ending of The Exorcist is in the mind of the beholder," Friedkin told me. "What you take from the film is what you bring to it. If you think the world is a dark and evil place, that’s what you will get back. If you think there is hope for a power of the good that is constantly at war with the power of evil, you'll get that."

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.