Few shots in the horror genre are more iconic than Father Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, arriving to battle a demon in “The Exorcist.”
The moment is quiet, and acts like a calm before the storm while also telling the audience a lot about the character. Merrin is stoic in stature and isn’t backing down from the eerie atmosphere, shown to the audience with the fog and great lighting.
These traits carry on through the rest of Merrin’s screen time, too, mainly thanks to Sydow’s fantastic performance.
Up until his arrival, the possession of the girl Regan has largely spiraled out of control and many of the supporting characters have seemed to be overwhelmed by the situation. Merrin, though, having experience battling demons before, shows up and is strong, confident and has a sense of calm about him in the face of adversity.
Sydow displays this perfectly, especially as the exorcism begins and wears on. Sydow shows an incredibly strong conviction in his performance and it allows the audience to buy into it. This, subsequently, makes a viewer even more engaged than before.
Another scene, released as part of the film’s extended director’s cut, shows another level of Merrin’s character, too.
In this sequence, Merrin sounds like a grizzled veteran. A man who’s seen a lot and despite having the resolve to take on this dangerous challenge, still seems somewhat broken in his own way. Once again, Sydow nails this delivery, bringing to the screen both a sense of experience and exhaustion.
While Merrin only arrives in the third act of the picture, the character undoubtedly left a mark on the flick and the genre as a whole. His resolve and unwavering commitment to his task is easily one of the most memorable moments from the movie, and Sydow’s spot on performance is the key reason why.
With little time on screen, Sydow made the absolute most of his performance and it’s something worth giving recognition to.