Monday, January 23, 2012

Deliverance (1972)

          Even though it contains one of the most infamous scenes of the ’70s, there’s so much more to John Boorman’s shattering action thriller Deliverance than “Squeal like a pig!” Adapted for the screen by poet James Dickey from his own novel, the picture follows four city-slicker Southerners during an ill-fated trip down the (fictional) Cahulawasee River in the dense wilderness of rural Georgia. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the de facto leader of the group because he’s a veteran outdoorsman, Ed (Jon Voight) knows his way around the woods but can’t match Lewis’ wild-man bravado, Drew (Ronny Cox) is a soft-spoken urbanite more comfortable with a banjo than a rifle, and Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an overweight everyman along for the ride. Spurred on by Lewis, the men decide to take a canoe trip before the river is dammed to create a lake; for Lewis, the challenge is conquering a disappearing wilderness, and for the others, the kick is escaping the urban grind.
          Right from the opening frames, Boorman creates an ominous atmosphere, best exemplified by the legendary “Dueling Banjos” scene. When the gang pulls up to a riverbank settlement, Drew engages an odd-looking (and presumably inbred) boy in a banjo-picking contest, but the musical bond shatters when Drew tries to shake the boy’s hand; the scene perfectly conveys that Lewis’ group has gone someplace where they don’t belong. Ignoring these portents, the gang hits the river and encounters rougher water than expected, figuratively and literally. Before long, their weekend of “roughing it” devolves into a violent nightmare when the boys find themselves at odds with violent locals.
          In the unforgettable “squeal like a pig” scene, for instance, Bobby is sexually assaulted by a vicious redneck (Bill McKinney), an act that compels Bobby’s compatriots to seek bloody revenge. The great accomplishment of Deliverance is that Boorman and Dickey convey the disturbing notion that nature itself is battling the interlopers—the rednecks are like antibodies battling invading toxins. Boorman also creates a dreamlike quality, notably when a wounded Ed climbs a sheer cliff as the sky undulates with unnatural colors behind him. Throughout the film, Boorman treats merciless rapids like a special effect, showing how easily a river can swallow a man.
          Realizing Boorman’s vision perfectly, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond found innovative ways to shoot in difficult situations and captured the terrifying beauty of a resplendent backwoods milieu. As for the acting, all four leading players contribute some of the best work of their careers. Voight is humane and vulnerable, perfectly illustrating a man driven beyond his natural capacity for violence by an insane situation, while Beatty and Cox present different colors of modern men whose animal instincts have been dampened so thoroughly they cannot withstand nature’s onslaught.
          Yet the picture in many ways belongs to Reynolds, who instantly transformed from a lightweight leading man to a major star with his appearance in Deliverance. Funny and maddening and savage, he’s completely believable as a he-man whose bluster hides a deep need to prove his own virility. The physicality of Reynolds’ performance is incredible, whether he’s steering a canoe or working a bow and arrow, and Reynolds went just as deep psychologically.
          Deliverance is hard to watch given the intensity of what happens onscreen, but the acting, filmmaking, and writing are so potent that it’s impossible to look away. Accolades showered on the film included Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing.

Deliverance: OUTTA SIGHT


Tommy Ross said...

An intense movie on many levels and not for the faint of heart. For me, the first parts with the tension between the rafters and the country folk and the banjos scene somehow freaks me out even more than what happens to them once they get on the water.

Kevin Mac said...

After many viewings over the decades, I've come to find the strongest moments are in the quiet scenes towards the end. The worried survivors, who look like they believe the police are going to show up any minute with guns and cuffs, have dinner with their boarding house mates. Voight busts up sobbing, not able to handle both the relief and the surreal reality of such normal goings on after the trials and horrors on the river. Ned declaring "isn't this corn special" is a thin mask for what will be mental scars he will carry for life. And there is great frustration in the posture of the sheriff. He knows they did something bad, but he can do nothing about it. Still, the menace is palpable when he tells them they better not show their heads around there again. He means it. If he gets the chance again, there will be mountain justice.

Ned's near-to-last line in the film to Voight, "you probably won't be seeing me for awhile" really kind of says it all, followed by a safely at home Voights nightmare. Both men go to their respective roosts to struggle with the demons in their own way. I bet they won't be going to the woods again, maybe even the well-wooded local park, any time soon.

Guy Callaway said...

One of the most unnerving films ever, and NOT just because of the 'squeal' scene.
Boorman perfectly captures the feeling of how something unknown can be both breathtaking and disquieting in equal measures.