Dir. John Boorman
Written by: James Dickey (from his novel)
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox
Deliverance is a film that needs little introduction. In the 45 years since its release, the film has gained notoriety and popularity, chiefly due to the shocking nature of one memorable scene. While the film’s rape scene might be its most memorable, and is certainly its most graphic, the rest of the film operates on a quieter, more cerebral level. It establishes a sense of dread from the opening scene, painting its four protagonists as not just fish out of water, but as prey to be hunted in an unfamiliar environment. Though it may not always be associated with the genre, to me Deliverance is very obviously a horror film. Boorman utilizes many tropes of the horror genre to build suspense and enhance a sense of impending catastrophe. I’m sure for audiences at the time, the film’s graphic depiction of sexual violence was shocking, but watching the film from a modern standpoint, I was more taken with the more subtle attempts of the film to disturb the audience. Though the film largely speaks to a set of anxieties specific to its time period, I still found it to be a tense, entertaining thriller.
Deliverance concerns itself with a weekend canoeing trip that goes completely and horrifically wrong. Lewis (Reynolds), Ed (Voight), Bobby (Beatty), and Drew (Cox) have made the trip from Atlanta into the Georgia backwoods to canoe the Cahulawassee River before it is dammed and the entire river valley is turned into a lake. The film begins with the group finding some locals to drive their cars down river so that they can pick them up after their canoe trip. While trying to secure drivers, the group displays consistently condescending attitudes towards the hill folk that they encounter, although Drew attempts to engage with a young boy, the two performing a call and response version of “Dueling Banjos” in one of the film’s more famous scenes. Having secured drivers, the crew split up into pairs and launch their canoes into the river. After some time, they are separated, with Bobby and Ed’s canoe running aground. A pair of hunters comes upon the men and forces them into the woods at gunpoint where they tie Ed to a tree and one of the hunters humiliates and rapes Bobby, forcing him to “squeal like a piggy.” Lewis comes to their rescue, shooting one of the hunters with an arrow, while the other escapes. After some debate on what to do with the body, Lewis convinces the group that they have to hide the body, hoping that when the river is damned all evidence of their crime will be at the bottom of the lake. With the murdered hunter buried, the group continues down the river, but when Drew is shot and suddenly falls into the river, it is apparent that they are being stalked by the second hunter. The three remaining friends are caught up in some rapids, and they lose sight of Drew’s body in the chaos. With one of their canoes shattered, Lewis suffering a broken leg, and a vengeful hunter stalking them, the group is left hoping that they’ll simply survive the experience. While they do manage to make it out of the river alive, the traumatic weekend trip leaves them all scarred.
The four principles do a great job of carrying the movie. Though Reynolds and Voight receive top billing, Beatty and Cox are memorable in their screen debuts, and the film really is driven by the dynamic of this central ensemble. The characters’ individual personalities all get moments to shine throughout the film. Cox gets the least amount of screentime, but the careful, worrisome Drew is an important foil for Reynolds’s cavalier Lewis. Though he’s overruled, Drew’s logical insistence that they take the murdered hunter’s body to the authorities is an important plea for civility and trust in the rule of law over a descent into savagery. Lewis, on the other hand, is the most accomplished outdoorsman of the group, and he represents a sort of adopted primitivism, a desire to master the natural world rather than exist in balance with it. The character benefits from Reynolds’s star persona at the time, with Lewis gaining a perceived ruggedness from the actor’s “man’s man” reputation. Beatty’s Bobby is the weakest member of the group, and he’s often emasculated, not just by the locals that they encounter, but by his friends in the group as well. He’s a typically effete city dweller, cowed by both the savagery of the river and the natural world, as well as the people who inhabit it. Bobby is offered up as a sacrificial lamb, given to appease the wrath of nature at the intrusion of these outsiders, particularly in the context of his being the victim of a rape. Finally, Voight’s character, Ed, is intended to be the point of audience identification. Ed has more everyman qualities than any of his friends, and by the film’s conclusion he has risen into the role of the “hero,” although he’s shown to be less inherently heroic than simply acting on survival instinct. Voight’s performance is probably the most dynamic of the film, as well. Though the film calls for all of the cast to provide memorable, emotive performances, Voight’s range is the widest, with Ed having to take on several different roles in the group throughout the course of the film.
Across the board, the performances feel genuine, which is probably the result of the film’s shoestring budget. Deliverance was shot on a budget of $2 million, which necessitated the cast performing most of their own stunts, as well as the shoot proceeding without any insurance. The fear seen on the actors’ faces is real, as they were actually canoeing through swift rapids, or performing other dangerous stunts. This authenticity translates to the screen and heightens the terror of the film. As someone who is afraid of heights, I’m always on the edge of my seat during the scene when Ed scales a sheer cliff face under cover of darkness to get the jump on the hunter who has been stalking their group. With the knowledge that Voight actually made the climb, watching the scene is panic-inducing. The film’s tight budget also necessitated some directorial choices that increase its horror quotient for me. Though one of its most enduring scenes involves the song “Dueling Banjos,” there is little other music in the film. I don’t know for sure if this choice was made due to budget concerns, but there is no credit for an official film score, and the little music that there is in Deliverance is eerily sparse. Long periods of the film proceed with just natural sound effects, with non-diegetic musical cues popping up on the soundtrack only occasionally. The effect is an all-encompassing sense of dread. The river is the film’s most consistently running soundtrack, and its persistence becomes ominous and monstrous by film’s end.
Though the film’s horror stems directly from the dichotomy of city culture vs. country culture, a struggle that is most graphically played out in the rape scene, the underlying and related dichotomy of civilization vs. the natural world is very much in play throughout the film. The real monster in the film is the raging (and fictional) Cahulawassee River, which brutally and unforgivingly tosses the canoe party, representatives of modern civilization, around like rag dolls. The occasion of the canoe trip is the impending damming of the river, a very literal example of man exerting his will on the natural world. For Lewis, the damming of the river represents the loss of a river that he has enjoyed rafting upon in the past, but for the locals who the group encounters, the damming of the river represents the impending loss of their livelihoods, properties, and ways of life. This fact is touched upon in passing throughout the film, but, to me, it is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. Deliverance doesn’t see or present any of the country folk in the film as sympathetic or even relatable characters, instead using stereotypes of the unthinking, unfeeling bumpkin to paint them as the film’s human villains. Obviously the actions represented in the film are heinous, but they are also symptomatic of individuals lashing out at intruders in the face of the eradication of their homeland and culture. Lewis, Ed, Bobby, and Drew are the embodiment of encroaching “civilization,” engaging in cultural tourism while openly mocking the denizens of the culture and place that they’ve traveled to enjoy one last time. The two hunters who rape Ed are reprehensible, but the rest of the locals in the film are shown to be in pitiable circumstances and they receive nothing but mocking cruelty from the protagonists. Early in the film, we see children who are obviously malnourished, living in squalor, but the film does little to prod its audience to empathize with these characters. Sometimes it goes so far as to textually mock them, with the mute banjo playing boy’s obvious mental impairment implying that perhaps he is the product of inbreeding. I’m not suggesting that the film’s hill folk should be seen as the heroes or even the central characters of the film, but their obvious disenfranchisement is something that Deliverance isn’t interested in exploring beyond a cursory glance, which is a shame to me.
Like many of the films that I’ve been writing about for this project, Deliverance isn’t a movie that I watch often at all, nor is it one that I am likely to watch again any time soon. When I mentioned to a coworker that I had watched Deliverance that morning before coming into work, his response was, “Why?” which, honestly, is probably the right response to someone telling you that they started their day by watching this film. It’s a very good movie, but it’s not one that is particularly pleasant to watch, or one that really lends itself to repeat viewings. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy watching it again after a decade or so, but it doesn’t feel necessary. It’s an intense viewing experience every time, and the film is often very beautiful, highlighting the natural beauty of Georgia, but Deliverance also established and cemented several negative stereotypes about Appalachian people and Southerners that I don’t enjoy seeing. Maybe I’m sensitive to this depiction because I grew up in West Virginia, a place that is typically misunderstood, neglected, and forgotten, until it’s needed to be the butt of an incest or personal hygiene joke. Deliverance is a fine movie, but I cringe when I hear “Dueling Banjos” played in any other media, because I know that it will soon be followed by a crude joke featuring some toothless yokel meant to represent an entire culture. Part of working through this project and going back to so many movies that I haven’t seen in a long time has reminded me to take films where they are, try to appreciate them for what they offer, and not seeking to too much impose my own worldview into my critical evaluation of a film. Of course, that’s often an impossibility and I don’t shy away from letting my ideologies or opinions guide my writing; this is my blog after all, and I’m largely writing it to please myself. However, I strive to be objective and find something to enjoy or take interest in with every film that I write about. So, in that spirit, I’m taking Deliverance for what it is, a fine thriller with some very good performances, but not one that I’ll be inclined to watch ever again.