Southern Comfort (1981)
“It’s the land of hospitality… unless you don’t belong.”
Director: Walter Hill
Cast: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward
Synopsis: A squad of National Guards on an isolated weekend exercise in the Louisiana swamp must fight for their lives when they anger local Cajuns by stealing their canoes.
The squad of National Guards who find themselves at the mercy of a bunch of angry Cajuns in Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, are quick to give their nominal leader, the hapless Casper (Les Lannom) a hard time over his decision-making skills, but none of them seem to be too bright. On exercises deep in the Louisiana bayou, they make the mistake of stealing some canoes and then recklessly firing a round of machine gun blanks at the Cajun men who gather at the riverside. Their stupidity earns their commanding officer (Peter Coyote) a long-range bullet to the head, triggering a nightmarish journey to safety through the inhospitable Bayou.
The men bicker amongst themselves as they blunder through the Bayou. They’re noisy and undisciplined, and take prisoner the first Cajun they come across (Brion James – Blade Runner, Striking Distance). One of them starts to crack up, while others fight amongst themselves. And all the time they’re being picked off by a gang of murderous rednecks determined to kill them all before they reach safety.
Comparisons with Deliverance are inevitable, but it’s fair to say that Southern Comfort is as different from Deliverance as a film about city dwellers stalked by hillbillies can be. There aren’t many likeable characters here, but then people under stress rarely shower their better side, and the screenplay does a good job of creating unique identities for each of the men. None of them feels as if they’re merely there to make up the numbers, and apart from one guy who goes off the rails completely, their individual responses to the situation seem realistic.
There’s a desolate beauty about the Bayou which is perfectly captured by cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, and creates this strange sense that it patiently awaits hapless visitors like the inexperienced Guardsmen so that it might ensnare them. It provides cover for their hunters and hiding places for their vicious snares, and seems to trap the soldiers within its confines, refusing to allow them to leave. The sense of doom is palpable, and the men’s fear and disunion is as instrumental in sealing their fate as the weapons of the Cajuns. Some say it’s an allegory for the war in Vietnam, and maybe it is, but it’s best viewed as a tense, unrelenting and uncomplicated thriller.
(Reviewed 16th November 2014)