Directed by: John Boorman
Premise: Four middle-age friends (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) canoeing through a river valley in rural Georgia run afoul of murderous hillbillies.
What Works: In the early 1970s there was something savage about American cinema. Movies like The Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs, Joe, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Clockwork Orange unleashed a new kind of horror on the audience. Gone were the gothic fairy tales of the Universal monsters and adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Instead audiences were treated to contemporary stories in which civilized people were driven to extreme violence and the very structures of society seemed to come apart. This was indicative of the social environment of that time which included assassinations, riots, and the war in Vietnam. It was in that context that a lot of angry and angst-ridden motion pictures were produced and among them was 1972’s Deliverance. In this story, four men from middle class society attempt to canoe their way through a river that is set to be destroyed by an encroaching electric company. Led by an alpha male played by Burt Reynolds, the men take to their excursion with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The two well-mannered members of the group played by Jon Voight and Ronny Cox approach the challenge with good humor while their portly friend played by Ned Beatty spends a lot of his time complaining. With this group of characters, Deliverance adheres to and in many respects establishes the dynamic of most groups of men in the movies as seen later in everything from The Last American Virgin to Stand By Me to The Hangover. As a tale of people stuck in the middle of nowhere and preyed upon by local savages, Deliverance channels both the horror film and the western. However, what distinguishes Deliverance from a lot of similar titles is its subtleties. This is a movie about the trauma of violence and the impact that it has on each of the men. These characters are far from the hardened killers of action movies and the violence does not come with redemption or renewal. In that way, Deliverance subverts some of the traditional depictions of violence; these men attempt to get back to nature before it disappears but then discover that nature itself is a much more brutal place than they imagined.
What Doesn’t: Deliverance was made in a particular time and the style of this film reflects a very different cinematic sensibility than the Hollywood films made today. It doesn’t have rapid editing or much camera movement and the performances are very naturalistic. For that reason, viewers may find the film slow or remote. However, even allowing for the cinematic context in which Deliverance was produced, the movie has its share of filmmaking flaws, especially the opening sequence. The blocking and coverage of some early scenes is too wide. The filmmakers rarely go in for detailed coverage in a way that would pick up some of the subtleties of the performances and so the movie misses opportunities to characterize the main cast. The ending of Deliverance is especially abrupt. This is a story about the trauma of violence but the movie concludes before the repercussions of that trauma are fully explored. Deliverance is also another movie that depicts rural Americans pretty terribly. In general, Hollywood has shown very little interest in the stories of people living outside of affluent or coastal urban communities (read: New York and Los Angeles). While this particular film is about the savagery in the heart of all mankind, Deliverance is also another movie in which rural folks are depicted as depraved and backwards.
DVD extras: Commentary track, documentaries, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Deliverance is a very important movie of its time and it remains disturbing for contemporary audiences. Although it is quite brutal, what is most stirring about the film is the subtle moments between the main cast of characters.
Episode: #563 (October 11, 2015)