Friday, September 09, 2005

Film: Deliverance

You may say that "Deliverance" was a "surprise hit" for me. I never expected that a film about four city guys, going on a paddling trip in wilderness and then being abused in the forest by a couple of highlanders, finally having to fight for their own lives - would be much to my liking. The way I see it, it could've been a Rambo-style action (if the accent was on survivalism) or a low-budget horror (if the accent was on abuse) and, while such films today have a vintage quality, they are often less than recommendable. But then, there is John Boorman, director who already wrote himself in film encyclopedias with revisionist thriller "Point Blank", film that was, as it's cult status has proven, some ten years ahead of it's time. Then there was also "Zardoz", heavily controlled by producers (just like any high-production SF) to the point where Boorman's authorship is questionable.

So Boorman rather made a drama in which action elements are there to represent transformation of characters, their symbolic loss of virginity as they're forced to kill and lie. It is a study of civilization, of it's relation with environment, civilization often destructive and nature mean and vengencefull; a lot of accent is put on studying this relationship, with the middle ground in small near-forest towns and their simple folks; four men depart from civilization with the sight of old, wrecked cars. This sight is, just as well, first thing they see upon returning, and this time it's a sign of saving. Building sight where cranes are digging up a place for the new dam, turns from the sorrowful sight to something that one of characters looks at almost with gloating.

Four town guys are Ed (John Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds in one of a few dramatic roles he had), Bobby (Ned Beaty) and Drew (Ronny Cox). They appear in a mountain city, looking for someone to drive their cars to the town down the river while they pedal that distance in canoes. Thing is, this river will soon be flooded together with surrounding forest and villages, and Lewis, more a survivalist fan than a real survivalist, wants to take an opportunity to enjoy the unspoiled nature before it's gone. Notable scene from the beginning, "dueling banjos", where Drew indulges in a speedy musical duel with a local retarded kid, sets the musical background for most of the film - but also the tone of what happens later: boy not only wins, but rejects a hand offered by Drew. Well, if I was Boorman, I would've cut this scene from it's final version. Too show-offy for the rest of the film, naturalistic and real, "banjos" scene also stolle spotlight from other, more important and more fascinating on substantial level, scenes.

Guys head down the river and they're amazed by the fresh, adrenaline-pumped feeling of paddling down the rocky river. However, as soon as next day, Ed and Bobby are attacked by two armed man tied to a tree, expecting Lewis's arrival (as Lewis is the only one who can save them), Ed is forced to watch one of the men raping Bobby in one of the most notorious scenes, known for it's untamed brutality.

Eventually, Lewis and Drew arrive, sneak out behind their back and Lewis executes the rapist with one arrow through heart, as he was planning to proceed from Bobby to Ed. The other man runs away.

What follows is a long and passionate argument as Drew claims that they should report an event to police, while Lewis suggests that they burry the body in the forest, where it'll soon be covered By tons of water. Ed and Bobby cling to Lewis, so they proceed burying the body. Every scene of this part is torturous, while four exhausted, shocked and disoriented men carry the body, then as they burry the body with their bare hands, Boorman doesn't cut down on anything; he takes his time, lets us see them and feel their pain, and it seems like digging that damn hole takes forever.

But the end is not near. Paddling down the river, four men don't realize that they're running right into the hands of the surviving highlander.

Noone is quite sure what happens then. Drew might've been shot from the coast, but when his body floats to the surface much later, guys aren't able to tell whether those are bullet wounds or just bruises. Canoes crash to each other and Lewis, the only one able to assure the survival, breaks his leg. As Bobby and Ed fish him out to a post in the steep canyon, he yells repeatedly "Drew was shot!" But if this is true, then the other man is stalking them from the top of the canyon. Far from manly, but rather gentle and boyish, Ed has to climb up the steep and stalk the killer. Again, Boorman lets us see every second of it. However, he doesn't reassure us into what happens then. Did Ed, who is not able to calm his hand from shaking while he aims at anything alive, really kill the villain? Or was there a third person with the bow and arrow, aiming from outside? Ed is wounded with an arrow while his enemy has a shotgun, but was it self-inflicted wound? Probably even distressed Ed can't tell. Finally, when he drags a body down, neither he nor Bobby are able to tell whether it is really the person who attacked them. Muddled, psychological scene open to interpretation would hardly satisfy any action fun, but then again, it was not the intention.

Ed and Bobby sink the bodies down and, in a remaining canoe, paddle wounded Lewis down the river. But they still have to make up a story for the police. Ed, forced to take over an unlikely leader position, shoves the fake story into Bobby's face, and Lewis, in terrible pains, barely squeals "I understand".

But down in town, story doesn’t match, police is suspicious as one villager recently disappeared. Ed and Bobby are forced to change the story; in a hospital, Ed barely has time to whisper to Lewis that they changed it, and when policeman enters the room, he's not even sure that Lewis heard him. But manly Lewis has enough strength to say "What happened? I don't remember anything after that last fall" and even put a cynical grin on his face.

That's the end of it and Ed is free to do to s home, his wife and a kid, but the final shot, his nightmare in which a hand is reaching out of the lake, says that he is too much of a man to just forget and go on as if nothing happened.

It's too simple to say that it's a good film; it is swiftly directed, with scenes that you can just keep watching over and over. There's a lot of wonderful nature photography. First part of the film is marked by dynamic, enjoyable scenes of paddling down the waterfalls; second part favours scene in which a character in first plane is countered with an impressive nature sight in background, be it a canyon, a river or a forest. Especially impressive is a shot of Ed, on the background of colourful dawn over a canyon.

Dramatic scenes are, however, dealt with wide scene shots in which various planes are put in use; while the first plane is left to a puzzled Ed or Lewis, second plane often offers action, or counterpoint to his puzzle (in a form of Drew, perhaps). Take the scene in which Ed, just before he is to be violated by two men, spots Lewis with a bow, far behind them, and the change of camera focus emphasizes his change of focus from villains to Lewis. One villain is shot and Ed grabs the gun from the other one. Boorman lets a slow rotation of camera follow their struggle, and then the escaping villain; Ed is here lost from the frame, left lying with the gun, but as villain, disappearing in the woods, leaves the frame empty, ravaging Drew fills it with his presence, rushing after him. Perfect orchestration of action by several characters, framed in one, slow moving take, owes dynamics to Ed's initial movement, grabbing the gun, and Drew's final burst of anger.

Film is filled with clever dialogues - not clever by itself, but cleverly depicting characters who like vain philosophy though, being city boys, simply don't understand the environment; often, they're talking at the same. There is a fine sense of detail, and no scene is just there to tell us what it has and then leave, without sticking around for a clever detail or two. After Ed has unsuccessfully taken a shot at deer with his bow, he trips and falls to the bed of leaves the forest is covered with.
There's a fine sense of orchestration in these talking sequences and often, characters aren't even in the frame at the time, as to show how this talk in filling up the hollow space, it's silence. Then there is timing; Boorman takes his time for everything to do: introduction, paddling down the river, brutal scenes, Drew's hysteria as they're digging the shallow grave, Ed's climbing up the steep rock. He wants to drive us into a story slowly and patiently. He wants us to see every little bit of their suffering; he won't let us out the easy way. We see some unpleasant things: the said rape, Lewis' gapping wound from a broken leg, Drew's twisted and broken-apart body - film of unusually brutal imagery, especially for year 197when it was made. We are forced to watch some emotional and physical torture, but it's a kind of torture that has a cathartic effect, and as the film ends we are frustrated, but clean, new, and better men.

There are four outstanding performances, two of which are debuts. Bobby played by Ned Beaty, probably the simplest character, is a small man, disrespectful for nature, openly vulgar but in no means deserving the torture he gets. He is deeply disoriented in wilderness, but despite his unimpressive appearance (or perhaps thanks to it), he slides through society, keeping his position, he is on his own there. Ronn Cox, as Drew, shy guitar played, puts an incredible transformation in front of us: mostly silent, good-natured and with perpetual friendly smile, he turns into a desperate man, with painful old-man's face as his moral standpoints are compromised. While he's hysterically digging that grave, we realize that he has harder time getting over that compromise than anyone else. "He was the best of us", says Ed as they sink Drew's body into the river; Perhaps, that's what actually killed him.

Lewis, butch, solemn man who only occasionally lets it visible that he is a fake, city slick like any other, is claimed by Burt Reynolds to be his best performance, one of rare dramatic performances by a man incredibly popular for his roles of a mustached womanizer in slick comedies and cop films. For this occasion he shaved moustaches and put his muscular arms on display. He is carefree early in the film, but for the most of the ending after he breaks his leg, his face is turned into a mask of pain. But as he manages to follow Ed's plan even in this condition, d when, by the end, his image of grinning butch is retrieved, we start believing that Lewis is becoming one with his desired image.

But the most impressive role is the one of Ed; Voight, a competent actor ever since the "Midnight cowboy", wasn't always so good in choosing roles. Yet, he accomplished outstanding performances scattered over his Career. One is of Ed, gentle and sensitive man, happy with his eventless city life, yet something keeps pushing him to these excursions with Lewis. Thus he is, aside from Lewis, most competent in wilderness and, just like Lewis, he tries to get in tune. But when he tries to shoot a deer, his hand uncontrollably shakes; too emotional for wilderness. He also lacks a somewhat misanthropic view of Lewis, that one day survival will be granted to the strongest, the best adjusted. For him, such trips are just picnics, fun in which he might learn something - not ideology by any means. And it is Ed who we feel with, it is him who we attach to. When he looks, stunned, with a wide-eyed shock, we are shocked too. When the shock turns into a despair or fear, that's exactly what we feel. And then, when he's determined, we are determined too. When he, finally safe, starts crying, we know why he is crying.

"Deliverance" once might've been a film for those with strong stomach. Today, average ten years old kid has seen worse stuff on TV. But it's mental torture that is hard to stand. Today's violence in films is detached, almost cartoonish. That's why it doesn't have the same effect on us like when we turn off the lights, sit down and watch "Deliverance".


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