Tuesday, January 13, 2009


"Deliverance" (John Boorman, 1972) Let me start with an anecdote. I have a dog who's feisty as all get-out. There's not too much he's afraid of, other than missing a meal, and he can be quite aggressive in protecting his perceived territory. My wife and I took him camping, which he enjoyed immensely. That is, until it came time to sleep in the tent. At that point, the dog was quite agitated, especially because he could see through the mesh to the outside world. He kept looking at us as if we were insane: "Sleep? Out here? There's nothing but some fabric to protect us! Are you crazy?" He didn't sleep all night, dutifully looking around to make sure everything was safe, especially his idiot-masters who thought a tent in the wilderness was the same as a house.

I tell that story only because the dog realized something only a non-biped would realize--Nature is cruel. Cruel in tooth and claw, as they say. But "human" nature's got it beat ten ways from Sunday.

And so "
Deliverance," from the novel by poet James Dickey that I was quite fond of back in the day. At the time it appeared in theaters I was worried about its adaptation because the simple story, of four city-boys who take on the adventure of canoeing a river about to be dammed out of existence, could have been a crude film. But, instead, under the austere direction of John Boorman, it's themes of ecology and fool-hardiness, vain-gloriousness and finding strength where none was expected are enhanced and made into an almost mystical experience by the film-maker.

Boorman accentuates the danger of the surroundings by avoiding clearings and staging so many scenes in the middle of forests,
with a restless camera that shifts perspective around trees, moving the formations of them around, to the point where you think you can see things in the patterns of the woods. And he presents tangible, visceral horrors not present in the book-- a mountain man newly killed falling forward into the crotch of a small tree and remaining upright; macho Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) pulling an arrow out of the breast-bone of a backwoods attacker ("Where'd the fletches go..." I thought when the act was done); the exaggerated horror of the men's injuries--the broken thigh-bone that pierces Lewis' leg (Reynolds does an incredible job undercutting his character's uber-stage-manliness with some of the most blood-curdling whimpering I've ever heard), the dislocated shoulder of Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) that has the man cradling his own head, sitting, weirdly on a rock out-crop, and Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) cutting an arrow out of his side to prepare for a final show-down below a sky that simmers in a yellow exposure-pushed sky. We won't even talk about Ned Beatty.

If there is a weak performance in the film it's author Dickey as the seething Sheriff who's just a little too-unsubtle in his suggestions. Voight, Beatty (his first film) and Cox do great work, and forgoing insurance, did their own rafting stunts. But Reynolds is terrific in his role, totally dominating the first half of the film, and, though out of action for the rest of the movie, still makes an impression. Hollywood may have a problem with him (doesn't take them...or himself...too seriously, perhaps?) but it would be nice to acknowledge that he can give gifted performances when gifted with good scripts.

In the latest pick, The Library of Congress chose "Deliverance" as one of the significant films to be added to the Film Registry.

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