Movies We Like
Deliverance is a wholly original American film, directed by a Brit, an action survival thriller in the Straw Dogs mode. Ahead of its time in ’72 it precluded a number of genres that would emerge over the decades from “hillbillyxploitation” of the '70s to “torture porn” of more recent years. Films from Southern Comfort to The Descent have been explained and pitched as “Deliverance with…” No film since has been able to combine the stunning filmmaking and the shock, but not just for shock's sake. This isn’t an exploitation film, beneath the horror there is great and powerful purpose, when man takes on wild nature, he also finds out what is buried in his own nature.
Instead of an easy weekend of golfing, four Atlanta white collar guys get out of their depth with a canoe trip on a river that is slowly being damned up deep in the Appalachian mountains. The trio are linked by the family man Ed (Jon Voight); he is joined by two cronies completely out of their comfort zone, Bobby (Ned Beatty in his film debut) and Drew (Ronny Cox, Richard “Dick” Jones of Robocop). Luckily joining them in the adventures is he-man Lewis (Burt Reynolds), who seems to know what he’s doing and who is quite the Hemingwayesque philosopher as well, “sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.”
Even as proper Southerners the guys are fish-out-of-water and looked at with scorn in the backwoods. Playing his guitar, Drew does seem to make a connection with an inbred looking mutant banjo plucking kid, though after making beautiful music together (the hit single “Dueling Banjos”) he is quickly snubbed. Bobby, a real city slicker, is particularly condescending to the locals. And when they get out onto the water, Lewis is peeved at how completely inept he is, no matter what a hotshot he may be back in the office. Lewis lives by his own rules, the law of nature; he can’t stand anyone who disrupts his machismo code.
Eventually Bobby and Ed briefly separate from the others. Docked on a wooded shore, they run into two backwoods hillbillies. This is the scene everyone talks about, the controversial one that put the film on the map. The two mountain men are so genuine it seems as if they are not actors but fellas who stumbled onto the set and were recruited (Bill McKinney is actually Actors Studio trained, but Herbert "Cowboy" Coward may actually have been found there). What turns the film into a male horror film is the fact that Bobby and Ed are sexually assaulted by the two men, Bobby is sodimized while the hillbilly tells him to “squeal like a pig.” It’s one of the most authentically brutal scenes of the era, the humiliation of Bobby’s ordeal is gut wrenching. Just before the other hillbilly is going to take his turn on Ed, Lewis arrives with his bow and arrow and kills one before the other escapes.
In the next act of the film the guys bury the hillbilly and make plans to keep their crime covered-up. But later while racing down river, the surviving hillbilly shoots at them, killing Drew and crippling Lewis in a nasty fall. Ed must dig deep, find his inner animal, climb a steep cliff and kill the guy. Then when the three men finally reach civilization they have to explain their missing buddy and keep their own two murders covered-up and recover from their own wounds, both physical and mental. Like no other film that mental wound that comes from killing is explored. While so many films have heroes who casually kill to protect themselves, Deliverance questions the consequences of that act, the scar that violence leaves on the mind. It turns out killing doesn’t come easy.
Very closely based on the first novel by the acclaimed Southern poet James Dickey, though the term “squeal like a pig” was invented for the film. Dickey wrote the screenplay with director John Boorman and even plays the sheriff (a well acted scene by the renaissance man). Boorman started his life as a BBC documentary director before breaking through with the great Hollywood produced crime thriller Point Break, a few films and years later came Deliverance. While Point Break was all mod ’68 style, Deliverance harkens back to those documentary days. Shooting with the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter) on Georgia’s Chattooga River, the actors and filmmakers were put in real life jeopardy, finding as much white water rapid realism as humanly possible. The look is stunning and gives the film extra raw danger.
Following his breakthrough role in Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance would cement Voight as a big actor in the '70s. He would deliver with a couple of major performances in Conrack and Coming Home and then in the '80s with Runaway Train before slipping into paycheck collecting mode. Reynolds' good-old-boy charm would help to make him a superstar, even with only a handful of good flicks on his resume, Deliverance the best of them (followed closely by The Longest Yard). For both actors, along with Beatty (who would be a top character actor for decades), Deliverance offers rich, three-dimensional roles. On a second or third viewing the complexity of the characters' layers becomes more varied - Lewis is more than just brawn and Bobby may come off as an insecure salesman, but his hurt and desperation to cover his shame is beautifully played. While Voight’s Ed is a perfectly realized “everyman” (the book’s narrator), audiences are forced to question themselves, could they commit the violence that Ed finds himself forced into?
As rainforests are chopped down new species and diseases spring from them. Some parts of nature were never meant to be exposed to the more evolved world at large. In Deliverance the damning of the river to make room for new high-end condos and golf courses will expose the hidden forest world to the more developed world of urban dwellers for the first time; two wildly divergent cultures, face to face, eye to eye. It’s a Charles Darwin throwdown that only a wild river can either divulge or cover-up. Deliverance is a rare film, an ecological thriller about humanities augmentation.
Deliverance was nominated for three Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Film Editing.