Directed By: John Boorman
Written By: James Dickey (based on his own novel Deliverance)
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronnie Cox
Deliverance is surely one of the most confronting Best Picture nominees of all time. It’s dirty and violent, and devoid of humour. The “squeal like a pig” scene, one of the film’s two sequences which have entered cinematic folklore, is utterly unnerving. But the film’s masterful achievement in mood shouldn’t be reduced to one moment of discomfort. John Boorman’s war of man against the elements is unrelentingly bleak. It doesn’t rub our noses in its dirtiness, rather there is a palpable realness to it all which makes it all the more distressing. What lies around the corner is never signposted by Boorman, but we never doubt watching our heroes navigate the bush that there is something horrible out there, something that we wish to never meet.
The story concerns four sort-of friends from Atlanta who trek out to the Georgian wilderness, hoping to experience the Cahulawassee River before it’s overrun by a man-made dam. Ed (Jon Voight) is the central most character, a conservative, uncertain type. Bobby and Drew (Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) are along for the ride; Bobby’s a boisterous, hot-headed insurance salesman, while Drew attempts to be the moral compass of the group, a good natured business executive. Lewis however (Burt Reynolds) is the leader. He champions masculinity and places himself on a pedestal through what he perceives as an exclusive admiration for nature. Lewis is the most resourceful of the quartet, and Reynolds’s may be the strongest of the four performances, putting up a credible but, at its core, a creaky veneer of philosophical machismo.
The film is a frightening blend of The Revenant and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as the group travel downstream; a gruelling, survivalist battle of man against nature, the elements seemingly out to sabotage the friends, whilst an uncivilised, unrecognisable other breed of man lingers in the marrow of the belligerent wilderness.
What’s most admirable about the film is the level of intellect and ethos that lies beneath its tough, exploitation-cinema coating. For all its indulgence of violence and grubbiness, Boorman and writer James Dickey (adapting his own novel) have much to say.
The other historic moment of the film is early on, the “duelling banjos” sequence where Drew with his guitar trades melodies with a banjo playing savant, an inbred albino boy. It’s powerful because this is the only moment where the city slickers successfully engage with this unrecognisable other, the hillbillies tucked away in the Georgian forest. It’s a fleeting moment of synchronicity, which expires as suddenly as it began. Drew goes to shake the hand of the boy once the music ceases but is met with a blank face. The two are at an impasse.
It’s a notion completed at the films end where a series of coffins are unearthed in preparation for the dam. Nature and the wilderness is dead, and it’s too late for the city dwellers to reconcile with it.
The film’s drama truly escalates when the group encounter a pair of deranged mountain men as they bump their way down river. Perhaps the men are symbols of nature growing malignant through its neglect, but the exchange is horrifying and challenging.
As I said earlier, it’s the realism underpinning Deliverance that makes it so tough, that gives its drama such life. Boorman observes the encounter with an uncomfortable voyeurism. It’s like we’ve poked our heads through the trees and unwittingly stumbled onto something we’re not supposed to see, but that we’re not allowed to turn from.
There are fleeting moments however which challenge the narrative’s pragmatism. Most notable is a horribly misplaced scene where Ed scales an insurmountable cliff face with nothing but his bare hands, a moment more at home in a Schwarzenegger action adventure than a naturalistic study of man and wild. The film also glimmers with pretentiousness every so often. When Lewis tells Ed “sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything” and that he doesn’t believe in insurance as with it there’s no risk, it’s hard to take Lewis as seriously as he and Burt Reynolds deserve, even if the pretentiousness is befitting of the character.
Whatever minor deficiencies there are however are quashed by Boorman’s sheer courage as a filmmaker. It’s a shame that the film is sometimes reduced to a pair of sequences, as Deliverance is a masterpiece in sustained unease. Uniformly well performed with drama that never so much as blinks, the film offers us no respite.
Deliverance is a rare breed of film; both a slug to the gut and a shot to the head.