Deliverance (1972)    3 Stars

“Four men ride a wild river. A weekend turns into a nightmare.”


Deliverance (1972)

Deliverance (1972)

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty

Synopsis: Intent on seeing the Cahulawassee River before it’s turned into one huge lake, outdoor fanatic Lewis Medlock takes his friends on a river-rafting trip they’ll never forget into the dangerous American back-country.

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While having you hiding your eyes behind your fingers as you’re subjected to one of American cinema’s most unflinching examinations of male sexual humiliation, John Boorman’s superior action drama Deliverance simultaneously has you yearning for the days when action movies still contained such long-discarded elements as character and subtext and plot. Deliverance has them all as it explores the way in which man, living within self-defined boundaries of decency, has become detached from nature, its laws and its unthinking cruelty.

Four city businessmen, Lewis (Burt Reynolds), a macho survivalist and property developer, Ed (Jon Voight), an introspective family man, Drew (Ronny Cox), the unassuming and most morally anchored member of the group, and Bobby (Ned Beatty), a brash insurance salesman, decide to canoe the rapids of the Cahulawassee River before the developers move in. How these four disparate types became friends, and why Lewis, who’s the only member of the group with in-depth experience of canoeing, would agree to let the three others tag along – other than for the opportunity to puff out his chest and act the alpha male – is never made clear. What is obvious is how the men’s city swagger serves to distance them from the backward hillbilly denizens of the Southern Georgia countryside – a distance that’s only temporarily shortened when Drew engages in the ’Duelling Banjos’ duet with an inbred boy.

The group’s faltering camaraderie is only temporarily buoyed by exhilarating sessions riding the river’s rapids, an exercise the hapless Bobby describes as the second best experience he’s ever had, and which is abruptly destroyed when Ed and Bobby, having moored after pulling ahead of Lewis and Drew, are accosted by a pair of malicious hillbillies. Boorman then proceeds to explore every man’s nightmare as he unflinchingly records Bobby’s brutal and horrifyingly rapid emasculation. Powerful as it is, it’s not simply Bobby’s physical abuse that horrifies the audience, it’s also the abruptness with which the frailty and impotence of the rules we have set for ourselves collapse when faced with an unreasoning and violent malevolence.

The four principal characters all give career best performances. It was Reynolds’ breakthrough movie, containing not a trace of the good-ol’-boy inanity to come. His Lewis is a parody of the action man hero, mouthing such meaningless platitudes as ’Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything,’ and ’you don’t beat this river,’ and when things go wrong his macho posturing is shown to be as fragile as the misconception that his weekend drives to the country somehow mean that he is ’connecting’ with it.

Strangely, the perception James Dickey’s script shows prior to Bobby’s rape is not so evident following it. It’s the film’s pivotal moment, yet it is never again referred to once his assailant’s body has been buried, and Bobby displays no evidence of the psychological trauma he would have inevitably suffered after being subjected to such a savage assault. In fact, the focus shifts almost entirely to Ed, who becomes a reluctant action hero as he scales sheer cliff faces and does battle with the hillbilly that got away and is intent on killing him and his buddies. Nevertheless, although Ed’s transformation doesn’t entirely ring true, it makes for tense, breathless entertainment as he attempts to guide his group through the inhospitable terrain. Men will do anything to survive, it seems; whether it’s killing another man or squealing like a pig…

(Reviewed 2nd July 2012)