Deliverance (1972, John Boorman)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

John Boorman’s film of James Dickey’s brooding, terrifying novel Deliverance is both one of the most perfectly realized of all American movies and perhaps the most successful example of a major work adapted for cinema into another major work. The language in Dickey’s novel is photographic in its evocation of place, mood and eventually pain; it’s a tortuously graphic book whose seemingly benign premise of four wannabe good-ol’-boys attempting to traverse a wild Appalachian river during a weekend getaway is belied by the unspeakable violence and despair it contains. In this sense, the novel is mirrored by the mystery and invisible horror of a fictionalized version of Georgia’s Coosawattee River; the film attains the same traits by transferring Dickey’s lyricism to breathtaking texture and atmosphere. No director has ever captured the sights, smells and uncertainty of the wilderness as Boorman does here, and his willingness to bend to the realities of this ruthless and devastatingly beautiful environment make seamless his gradual change of tone from wonder to misery, both of which in his hands come to feel intrinsic to the soil. Deliverance greets us with four disaprate man who range from insufferably cocky to powerlessly naive, all of whom have no idea of the scope and madness of their immediate destiny. On repeat viewings, this dramatic irony can just about cripple you.

When trying to evaluate and interpret Deliverance, as visceral as it is, it’s easy to get lost in the spectacular technical and narrative details rather than its more pertinent essence; it should, however, be noted quickly that the film’s economy is astonishing. These four characters, carefully and completely established through offhand and perfunctory dialogue, are driven to the brink and (in some cases) back again within 109 minutes, all with a distinctive sense of place and danger put across more immersively than any number of three-hour Hollywood epics one might name. Because the production was uninsured, the actors actually performed all of their utterly insane on-location stunts themselves, a totally irresponsible decision that caused injury and catastrophe and only mercifully nothing that derailed anyone’s life; but the upshot is that the scenes on the river look absolutely magnificent. Not only is it unlikely another director would stage them as impeccably as Boorman does, it would now essentially be impossible to shoot the film in this manner; so as with Merian Cooper’s early documentaries, your temptation is to decry Boorman and the studio for being idiots but you also cannot deny that we are incredibly lucky this footage exists — the actors careening along rapids and reacting accordingly (which has a neatly grounding effect on their performances), Jon Voight actually climbing the cliff his character is meant to be climbing (eat it, Brando) and Burt Reynolds actually being shackled to the bottom of a canoe that nearly capsizes multiple times even though you can barely see him. Our response to the encroaching threats of the forest and its occupants is of course only enhanced by this disturbing sense of documentarian reality. All the while, Boorman’s frame never fails to place the danger within its counter-intuitively stoic if not placid context: trees and mountains reaching overhead like a canopy that can be only helplessly gazed at from below like the tall trees that portend Judy being driven to her death in Vertigo.

Boorman demonstrates master storytelling here by virtue of the fact that the mechanics are never obvious; it’s a beautifully structured script (a rewrite of novelist Dickey’s own treatment) but not in the manner befitting labored film-school analysis. Rather, like some sublime piece of music, its elements fall together naturally. The most important change from the novel is the transition from a vivid, highly personal first-person narration to the virtually equal complexity of four central characters, all played by actors at the peak of their prowess: Ed (Voight), Lewis (Reynolds, in the greatest performance of his career), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox). Ed remains the audience vessel, the one whose often agonized, endlessly expressive face most consistently reflects our own responses to the turmoil that unfolds, but the three men joining him for this venture are no less full-bodied and convincing. They are all businessmen, city boys out of Atlanta, stepping out (reluctantly, in some cases) from middle-class comfort to engage with the world on the occasional weekend. Their de facto leader is Lewis, just as much a coddled urbanite as his pals but one who evidently works out a lot and considers himself a woodsman and survivalist of sorts, the familiar sort who romanticizes a rugged outsider status he doesn’t truly understand, who claims to long for civilization-ending anarchy.

Bobby, meanwhile, is the most sheltered of all, impatient with even the most trivial annoyances of the outdoors and completely unimpressed with Lewis’ performative machismo; his chosen pasttime is the telling of loudly heterosexual dirty jokes. The guitar player Drew is the most sensitive and cannily honest of the lot, in touch with and unafraid of his emotions in a manner that seems essentially alien to the others (early on he meets Lewis’ grandstanding about the untouched wild with unironic, awestruck glee that he does not filter; at every point, he is as earnest as Lewis pretends to be). Ed stands somewhere between Bobby and Drew, kind-hearted and mild-mannered but less convicted than the other three, at least outwardly, present themselves as being; he willingly goes along with Lewis’ ideas and schemes despite finding his philosophy somewhat ludicrous, yet somehow it’s Lewis to whom he seems closest. He loves his domesticated existence (the book expands on this by fleshing out his marriage and indicating that his deepest bond of all is not with any male friend but with his wife) but somehow still feels uncertain enough about his destiny to wonder a bit at what frays the edges of it.

Lewis’ perspective is the one that undergoes the most challenge and ridicule in the film; breaking his unjustified confidence down is, in essence, the point of the entire exercise. Yet the film, even more than the novel, does give Lewis one bit of validation by permitting some concession to his opening monologue about the final untouched portions of nature falling away to make way for tomorrow. There is a kind of symmetry here: the picture opens with the conversation embodying Lewis’ lament for the soon-to-be-dead Cahulawassee River amid a montage of damming in progress; in the final moments, the characters drive through a small town in the process of being dismantled for the manmade flood, dam, cities and lakes to come. The men attempted to subvert an onslaught of modernism that they actually represent, and Ed is newly aware that the world has no more business imposing itself on these backwood territories than they did. But there is no talking a capitalistic society itself out of crushing forward; four little men with no real idea where they are, however, are easy to conquer and destroy, as they have discovered this weekend.

Before the film takes its abrupt turn toward the macabre, there are already myriad occasions to provoke the kind of reactions in these four idle canoers that tell us all we need to know about who they are; at every turn they encounter the blanket hostility toward “city folk” that any audience member will view as inevitable. Of course this cultural chasm eventually takes on gargantuan proportions, but prior to that curtain’s turning we find a justifiable skepticism that runs through to the end of the film, when novelist Dickey himself (playing a small-town sheriff but it may as well be authorial voice) chides what remains of the gang never to do anything so reckless again. Deliverance occasionally has come under fire for playing up “hillbilly” stereotypes; being a Southerner myself, I’m sympathetic to this response, but it’s difficult for me to find cause for an interpretation of the film in which we are meant uniformly to side with the hotheads drifting through a world far beyond their actual lived experience. You can read the stresses and histories on the faces of the minor characters, of those we only fleetingly glimpse, as easily as we can on those of Voight, Beatty et al.

The glimpses we get of poverty and pride — the young and old members of a family that operates and lingers around a truck stop, including a mute boy who’s a banjo virtuoso and whose haunted demeanor achingly foreshadows the coming storm — ring authentically even if they can easily be accused of approximating, to some audiences, a classic freakshow; but as usual we must ask how can one depict the most neglected corners of society without the possibility of malicious interpretation? The more important element here is the dichotomy of civilization as Ed envisions it, as Fred fantasizes about it, and as it actually exists; and regardless of whether the people encountered by the troupe are ultimately decent or evil — and, as in any stratosphere, they come upon both extremes and everything in between — the flavor of wandering into a place where one does not and cannot belong is familiar to anyone who’s lived here among the strange Gothic forests, avenues and rivers. Seldom have the corresponding sensations been so eerily captured as by Boorman, ironically a British director, reversing the Straw Dogs standard of an American casting the rural brutes of England as the trial by fire of upper-middle-class male comfort and confidence.

There is little need to outline the disruption and tragedy at the core of Deliverance, the events that rupture the film and these lives; the moments comprising it are still as ubiquitous in pop culture as any iconic sequence in film of the 1970s, even if sometimes parroted in a strangely reductive manner. (“Squeal like a pig” in an Academy Awards montage and so forth.) The agony exhibited in the key scene by Beatty and the menace of villains Bill McKinney and Herbert Coward have been the subject of endless parody, not because they are ineffective but because they are completely unforgettable. This sort of narrative trapdoor is familiar from horror pictures going back to Psycho; and as in Psycho, its gravity is made more so by the realism of all that preceded it. To Hitchcock’s bag of tricks Boorman adds, via widescreen framing, the unchanging wall of nature surrounding the characters making a greater mockery of their travails than future comedians ever could. Beatty’s legacy does not sit solely with the scene in which he is the victim of perhaps the most infamous rape in cinema — and certainly one of the most distressing scenes in American film — but his shock and horror, and lingering trauma afterward, are masterfully realized enough to seem like the apex of a distinguished career.

Everything declines quickly. Lewis gets to play the role he’s always wanted — the salt-of-the-earth hero conquering evil — for exactly one scene, then like Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner he holds up a sign reading “what now?”. Badly injured just afterward on the canoe after a democratically-voted quick burial that visibly wrecks Drew in particular, Lewis’ sufferings nonetheless may not quite be on the scale of Drew’s and Bobby’s, but it is Lewis’ vision of the world that the film’s events come around to decimate. Apart from Deliverance‘s more generalized askance view at the entire concept of “male bonding” (it is the cinematic rebuttal-in-advance to Iron John), it actively demonstrates the neutering of machismo itself. This refers less to the rape and murder, though Bobby clearly and needlessly takes it as an affront to his manhood, than to everything afterward: all four characters but especially Lewis are brought to their knees, in the manner of Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII, when the great King’s nullified bravado serves only to strangle him as he pathetically attempts to wrestle in front of the Royal Court. The mayhem into which they slide demonstrates every emptiness of the men’s “city slicker” origins, but moreover indicates the problem of any habit of careening headfirst into the unknown purely out of a surplus of ego.

Drew receives the worst fate and, as Ed points out in his short eulogy, deserves it the least: he is still his old fearlessly straightforward self when chasing the surviving mountain-man assailant out of the clearing, but grows quickly apprehensive and then outright despondent during the act of hiding Lewis’ murder of the other man. After appearing manic while helping to dig the man’s grave, he never recovers and, in what may against all odds be the film’s most chilling moment, suddenly leans forward and falls out of the boat he’s meant to be paddling, his face blank yet utterly tortured. This leads to a chain reaction: the loss of a canoe and Lewis nearly being killed and spending the rest of the story in near-intolerable pain (the film’s only slightly cheeky comeuppance for his overbearing confidence), then a Conversation-like debate over what actually caused Drew to fall over. Between grunts of despair Lewis claims repeatedly that Drew was shot from atop the mountain, presumably by the surviving attacker that wasn’t killed; quickly convinced — because how could you not be convinced by Lewis? — Ed arduously climbs to the peak and kills a man with an arrow, but there is then the added uncertainty of whether it is even the same man (followed by the possible absence of a gunshot wound when they find Drew’s body), if this was a needless crime to add to the two existing corpses.

In the woods and on the river, Boorman lingers unapologetically on the images of death: the rapist with the arrow in his back foregrounds shot after shot of the four leads debating, his eyes and mouth frozen in obscene fellating of a thin tree. He is carried as a sack of meat to his resting place, his lifeless face still demanding our eyes and attention. Are we to simply find him a figure of horror, to take pity on him somehow, or more likely, to recognize already that his malicious ways have spelled the end of life for all four of these men, if only literally for one? There is later the hanging body of the man Ed kills, descending down the mountain via rope, displayed for the river below like a Medieval trophy despite the disgust of all involved at what was now deemed necessary for survival. And most disturbingly, the deceased Drew discovered along the route of return now in rigor mortis, functioning suddenly as a horrible and still monument.

Quickly afterward Ed and Bobby paddle the incapacitated Lewis back to town at last, their inarticulate trauma preceding them everywhere like a shadow. The town and hospital are saviors, symbols of the social progress Lewis began the film so smugly denouncing. If we accept the notion of a narrative film as the purveyor of a point of view — and I do not find this to be a universally useful conceit — then Deliverance with its foolish white men brought too late back from the brink of untold physical torture and death by a coalition of men and women white and black, civilians and medical workers and ordinary folks who cook well, their only obvious lingering enemies the strictly white redneck police force, it is hard not to interpret it as a kind of unintentional antithesis to one of the most acclaimed films of the ’70s, Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the deep promise of white male greatness is weakened and destroyed not by its own hubris but by the personification of a wicked witch and her African-American helpers. Deliverance resonates so much more strongly today than that movie because, of the two, its perspective bears so much closer relation to the actual world we still occupy.

All that said, in some ways what makes Deliverance such an effective film is the way that it steps out of that baseline reality and touches upon something improbably, almost supernaturally terrible; in other words, its adherence to horror (and exploitation) film conventions within a relatively, deceptively mundane framework. It’s possible to view the film with some detachment as a bit of demented fun; you wonder at the implications when the sheriff makes noises about wanting the town to glide peacefully into the good night, or when the cab driver carting Ed around at the end mentions that Aintry being flooded out and ceasing to exist is the best thing that could ever happen to it. There are these vague, playful indications of something strange and invisible compelling forces of evil to converge upon this place, as though the demolition of it all were spiritually justified. But truthfully, this is Boorman playing with perspective more than anything; little wonder that the three survivors would look back on this place and time with understandable torment for the rest of their lives, but this in so many ways is a hive that they pushed. The novel bookends its tale with interludes illustrating that Ed enjoys a carefully cultivated peace but can now never be fully rested, for better or worse; the film makes this explicit with another Psycho illusion (or, reaching back further, perhaps a Blackmail allusion) — presenting first the nightmare and then the equally unsettling reality of the very spot in which destiny met these men, and will never entirely leave them alone. Deliverance is about stones that, once turned, cannot be unturned, in men as well as in society — and the nagging suspicion that there are worlds best left unconquered, truths left unlearned, fears left untested.

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