The tagline of this film should have been “The movie that proves going up the river with a paddle won’t end better than going up the river without one.” Or maybe “You don’t fuck with nature, or nature will fuck you.” Really, the whole group should have known something was wrong when they first met and noticed that Jon Voight had a mustache but Burt Reynolds didn’t. Then there’s the disturbing kid banjo player, which any Farmer’s Almanac will tell you is the hillbilly equivalent of an owl or a bird flying into your house. I mean, c’mon, the signs are all over the place! How did they not see them?
Of course, I kid because, even 37 years later, Deliverance is a movie that remains so unsettling that it’s easier to joke about than write about seriously.
The story itself is simple, taking the classic “man’s return to nature” archetype and using it to profoundly disturbing effect. It stars Jon Voight as Ed, Burt Reynolds as Lewis, Ned Beatty as Bobby, and Ronny Cox as Drew. This quartet of normal men has decided to canoe the dangerous Cahulawassee River before it’s turned into a huge lake. They’ve brought everything they needed for the trip, including cars, bows and arrows, and even a guitar for entertainment. But it’s not long before they’ve found out they’ve taken a wrong turn, and a nightmarish encounter with the “Mountain Man” (Bill McKinney) and “Toothless Man” (Herbert “Cowboy” Coward) turns their fun outing into a desperate game of survival.
Deliverance was adapted by James Dickey, based on his own first novel by the same name. Before then, Dickey had been known as a highly lauded and awarded poet, and Deliverance was his ode to his love for nature—a nature that was disappearing in the wake of civilized man. Dickey himself was an imposing figure; at 6’3” he towered over most of the cast, and insisted on being on set and calling the actors by their character’s names. He even brought them all aside to “confess” that everything in the book happened to him. Eventually he was kicked off the set by John Boorman, but was brought back in a cameo as the town sheriff. Even in his absence his ghost seems to hover over the film.
The casting and characters are a wonderful study in contrast. At the time, Voight was coming off a box office failure, swearing he’d never work again until Boorman convinced him. After the shoot he remarked, “he saved my life and then spent the next three months trying to kill me”. Voight is an actor in the method mode, and he is wonderfully subtle here as the “everyman” Ed. Reynolds, by contrast, is a much more theatrical, melodramatic, and charismatic persona, which perfectly fits the boisterousness of Lewis, a character that couldn’t be more enthusiastic about getting back to nature and pretending as if he knows everything about it.
In the wake of the film’s stars, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox often get overlooked, but both add dimension to the film. Beatty especially shines in what must be the most horrific scene for any actor to film—a rape. But before that scene it’s his likability that ultimately gives the scene such terrifying potency. Ronny Cox is underappreciated because he’s stuck being the upright, moral “consciousness” of the group, but none of the others could have played the “dueling banjos” scene with more authenticity and excitement. He was also double-jointed which allowed for that vivid image of him in the river late in the film.
Director John Boorman discusses in the commentary how the producers, being leery of the film’s box office potential, forced him to slice the budget, paring it down to the absolute minimal. This meant eliminating the composer, and shooting on location, in continuity, with a small crew and as close to a 1:1 stock of film as possible. Boorman and ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond—who was fresh off shooting Robert Altman’s _McCabe and Mrs. Miller_—opted for a desiderated film stock that would render the locales with as much gritty realism as possible. Boorman also didn’t believe in special effects or stuntmen, and there is almost none of either in the film. The net result is a movie that feels wholly organic on a visual level and utterly believable on a dramatic level.
That organic believability is, in large part, what galvanizes the film. Without a score what we’re left with is creepy silences and the strangely malevolent sounds of nature where even bird calls echo like the cries of ghosts. Boorman said that he felt that the “Mountain Man” and “Toothless Man” represented the spirits of the forest getting their revenge on modern man, and on one level the film does work almost like a Grimm Fairy Tale fable, with sodomite hillbillies substituting for witches and goblins. After their primal form of survival, the characters’ return to civilization takes on an almost Bunuelian surrealism to it; perhaps encapsulated best by the image of the Church on wheels. Is it the rootlessness of morality and beliefs? A symbol for the fact that their civilized nature has shifted? Is it that such vestiges of man’s social constructions can’t help but flee and be forever separated from primeval nature?
Ultimately, the film seems to suggest Carl Jung’s quote that “Too much of the animal disfigures the civilized human being, too much culture makes a sick animal.” Deliverance presents the endless struggle between the two and, in doing so, manages to transcend its modernly tepid shock value. The film isn’t perfect, however, and never recovers its full robustness with the sidelining of Reynolds’ Lewis character. It is, nonetheless, a powerful experience with enough substance and excellent craftsmanship driving it to make it feel fresh and relevant today.