Deliverance

| October 10, 2001

Deliverance is a film that contains unforgettable scenes and shows you how NOT to have a mid-life crisis. It works both as an action flick and a morality play – it’s the ultimate SUV fantasy gone horribly wrong. The characters go looking for wild surroundings and instead find the wild places within their own natures. Based on the novel by James Dickey, the movie was directed by John Boorman (The Tailor of Panama) and stars Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy), Ned Beatty (his debut) and Burt Reynolds (who did not go on to better things). Author James Dickey plays the sheriff. The stars did most of their own whitewater canoeing and rock-climbing. No insurance company would cover the ultra-hazardous production.
The film opens with four average suburban guys – thirty-some things with receding hair and a bit bored with life’s possibilities – driving up into the mountains to go canoeing alone on a wild, untamed river in Georgia. The area will soon be turned into a huge lake by a new dam which will generate hydroelectric power and place whole towns underwater (an idea recycled in George Clooney’s O Brother, Where Art Thou). The Burt Reynolds character, Lewis, is a steroidal man’s man given to survivalist rantings. The others, married men with children and responsibilities but desperate for some excitement in their lives, are under his spell.
They stop for gas in a little clearing near the headwaters where the first unforgettable scene takes place. Drew takes out his guitar and starts pickin’ some bluegrass. His phrases from `Yankee Doodle Dandy’ are answered by an eerie inbred Appalachian manchild on the banjo, and the musical scene `Dueling Banjos’ enters cinematic history.
They put the canoes on the water and get their first taste of rapids. The next morning, the Jon Voight character goes out deer hunting with a bow and arrow. He gets his chance but muffs it when his hand trembles, a detail successfully used to build suspense later on.
The second unforgettable scene (“squeal like a pig”) takes place at the next landing. Two mountain men with a gun accost the Voight and Beatty characters and Beatty becomes the victim of a male rape. Voight is about to suffer a similar fate (“he got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he”) when Lewis sneaks up from behind and shoots one of the hillbillies dead with a bow and arrow straight through the heart. The other runs off, setting up the action that takes place later in a narrow gorge with high cliffs.
This puts our heroes in a quandary. Do they go to the authorities and tyro explain everything, possibly facing a jury not of their peers but of inbred crackers related to the dead man? (“Everybody’s kin up here”.) Instead, they make a different choice, to bury the body and deny everything if asked (the hand sticks up and gets buried last).They figure they can get away with it because the valley will soon be under hundreds of feet of water. But they’re not out of the woods yet. The second man is still out there and there rebound to be questions when they get off the river.
The film is not without its blemishes – the phony Southern accents for one. And you have to buy into stereotypes, for another. It’s clearer in the book, but you are supposed to believe that all people who live in Appalachia are gap-toothed inbred retards who are malevolent, sadistic and immediately hostile to outsiders. Also, the depiction of homosexuality as perversion seems almost quaint in an era when people routinely elect openly gay officials and Ellen plays for laughs on mainstream TV.
As a morality play, the movie is unsettling and profound – Burt Reynolds? Profound? Yes, actually. The film’s power derives from its use of age-old imagery and themes – the hand, water, man against nature, survival, good versus evil. This is primal stuff.
In one regard, the movie is about irresponsibility and succumbing to the siren song of adventure. Aside from Lewis, the characters have never been in a canoe before, much less experienced whitewater rapids. These irresponsible reckless fools are warned by the locals that the river is dangerous, but they persist. They go where they are beyond all help – try explaining that to their children.
The movie is also about the wild things that happen once you believe your survival is at stake and you wade into the treacherous waters of moral ambiguity. The characters kill more than once and lie to cover up their misdeeds. And these are the good guys in this story! The first killing comes before anyone’s life is threatened or self-defense could plausibly be claimed. The second might have been the wrong man entirely.
In the book, the characters ultimately find peace and a way to live with themselves. What makes the movie so disturbing is that they do not. They never really succeed in extricating themselves from the situation entirely or in finding deliverance from their own natures. Thus, the unforgettable nightmare scene at the end – one that has stuck with this reviewer for more than a quarter-century – the hand, usually a symbol of deliverance but now threatening to be their undoing, rising slowly but inexorably up and out of the water. “Oh God, there’s no end to it.”
Shoulda gone golfing.

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