Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Film Ignorance #3: Deliverance

Film: Deliverance
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic.
Director: John Boorman
Stars: John Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty
Year: 1972
Reason for Ignorance: Never seemed that appetizing, for some reason...

Ignorance Rating: 25

I went to the University of South Carolina, which means there was a plaque about 50 feet from my freshman dorm proclaiming the campus as the site where poet James Dickey wrote the novel Deliverance. One of my professors, Dr. Greiner, was full of stories about Dickey's life and his dying words; another professor, who happened to be one of the worst human beings I had ever met, bragged about beating Dickey at tennis. It was a place suffused with the spirit of Dickey. But beyond the time when I was little that my dad showed me the dueling banjo scene because he thought I'd like the music, I never encountered this rough-hewn story of four friends on the canoe trip from hell in any form.

Deliverance, it turns out, is every bit the grueling and gut-wrenching experience I had always assumed it to be. It's also a masterpiece. Director John Boorman follows the four friends down the river to their catastrophe, and imbues the entire film with a sense of inevitable dread; although certainly any modern viewer of this film gets an extra dose of dread in the first 50 minutes, awaiting the famous "squeal like a pig" scene. Intense close-ups give all of the actors a chance to showcase their responses to the disasters that befall them, and all of them respond well, especially Voight. Although the violence is not especially graphic, it's nevertheless deeply disturbing when it occurs, and becomes even more disturbing when we watch the faces of the victims and the victimizers in its aftermath.

The canoe trip is a response to Reynolds' survivalist predictions of doom; a river is being damned for hydroelectric power and Reynolds wants to canoe down it before the opportunity is lost to civilization forever. Early in the film, when his character decides to trust the Griner brothers (coincidence?) with their vehicles, John Voight's character suggests it might not be such a good idea to trust their cars to these "rough-looking characters." Reynolds responds: "You can't judge people based on how they look."

The message of the first half Deliverance seems to be that Reynolds is wrong. Lewis (Reynolds) looks like a good ole boy with outdoorsy pretentions, and he certainly is. Ed (Voight) looks like a regular guy, and he is. Drew (Ronny Cox) looks friendly and affable, and he's the one who befriends the banjo-playing inbred hillbilly boy. Bobby (Ned Beatty) is short, round, soft, and piggish looking, and he gets anally raped. And yes, the inbred hillbillies doing the raping look violent and uncivilized. The second half of the film provides an interesting deconstruction of this way of judging, in ways that I cannot go into without ruining things for those who remain blissfully ignorant about the trials of Deliverance.

Ultimately, Deliverance is someone's (Dickey's?) nightmarish fantasy about a world without civilization. It's a world that Lewis hungers for; when he tells Ed that civilization has gotten too complicated and will inevitably fall, Ed responds: "You sound like you're looking forward to it." Ed gets what he wants, but it's not the backbone-building experience he was hoping for. It's a world of violence but, more importantly, suffering, and above all a world where unruly systems crush human beings. All humanity can do is try to build other, more humane systems in response. As their taxi driver says about Aintry, the town to be swallowed by the lake: "It's the best thing that's ever happened to this town."

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