Perhaps the ultimate film about the male bravado, four city men, in the outback of Appalachia, out to conquer nature and canoe down the rapids of an untamed river wild, become hunted by a group of hillbilly locals. While some of the character conflict and thematic pronunciations hit the nail on the head, looking back 40 years later, Deliverance is still a riveting adventure film equalled by deep connections of man, nature, class and gender.
Deliverance (1972) dir. John Boorman
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronnie Cox
By Alan Bacchus
Each character is written to highlight the Freudian core of ourselves. Ed (Jon Voight), a lawyer and organizer of the excursion, serves as the everyman point-of-view into the nightmare. Lewis (Burt Reynolds), a swaggering outdoorsman and Darwinist to the extreme, acts as the group's spirit mentor to their internal expression of their primal desires. Drew (Ronny Cox), the moralist and guitar player, fights the group's amoral decision-making. And Bobby (Ned Beatty), the portly nave, famously loses his bravado and gets raped and humiliated by the sadistic hillbilly woodsmen.
Whether it's the conflict within the foursome, such as Lewis's constant taunting of Bobby, or the culture clash of the mountain men versus the city slickers, it's a passive battle for the ages. Look carefully and there's very little direct conflict. Instead, Boorman simmers his pot with scenes of brilliantly quiet tension and consciously oblique plot turns.
The opening scenes are masterful, featuring the group's stop off at the gas station and the first meeting of the foursome and the locals. Despite their inbred poverty, the locals easily read Bobby's arrogant superiority and tense body language. Lewis's negotiation for the drivers who would take their cars to the bottom of river deliciously establishes Lewis's confidence and respect for these salt of the earth inhabitants. The scene, of course, ends with the memorable duelling banjos sequence, a superlative metaphor for the battle of wills about to commence.
John Boorman and Vilmos Zsigmond's brilliant outdoor, on location cinematography looks stunning in Blu-Ray. Few directors used anamorphic widescreen better than Boorman, and fewer films have are more intimately connected to its location than Deliverance.
The film's most famous sequence ― Bobby's rape ― sits right at the midpoint and represents the only scene of direct, face-to-face violence. At a glance, it's certainly most cruel to the character of Bobby, but it can also be seen as one of cinema's great acts of comeuppance for his passive but brazen superiority complex and disrespect for the environment and its people.
The visual and visceral brilliance notwithstanding, Deliverance is as rich in theme and context. The environmental story of man's desire to tame nature, redirecting the river and flood the valley for the benefit of its largely white, civilized population, is inseparable from America's self-determined, wealth-based class system and the external desires of men to conquer everything they encounter.
The Warner Special Edition Blu-Ray, wonderfully packaged with comprehensive liner notes, does right by the film. Featurettes and director commentary from a 2007 release are present, as well as a new high definition retrospective of the four actors sitting down and discussing the making of the film. The lack of a moderator in the discussion makes it mostly awkward, not to mention its location: the Burt Reynolds museum in Jupiter Florida.
This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca