1972 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #309: Deliverance (1972)

Thinking back over the majority of the last couple of films I’ve reviewed, most of them have complex plot structures. Obviously sprawling costume dramas such as Barry Lyndon and Nicholas and Alexandra have stories that stretch over numerous decades but even something like An Unmarried Woman has a lot going on story-wise. But for the next film on the list, Deliverance, a simple story is all that suffices and I feel the film is all the better for it.

Deliverance follows four businessmen on a camping trip as one of their number, Lewis, is desperate to explore a valley before it and the surrounding town becomes one massive lake. Though Lewis and his friend Ed are experienced campers; their companions Drew and Bobby are not. Deliverance gives as an eerie feeling right away as the quartet arrive in the small town and encounter the locals, most of whom are portrayed as inbred yokels. Soon the four men are off on their canoes but on their first night camping, Lewis believes he hears a noise in the bushes. On the second day, Ed and Bobby get lost and end up coming ashore where they encounter two men. Anybody who’s seen the film knows what graphic fate the two men inflict on the pair, especially Bobby, and this whole set piece ends with Louis killing one of the men with an arrow. From there the film presents a moral dilemma, namely should the men report the incident to the police or bury the body and forget what happened altogether. As the leader of the gang, Lewis eventually convinces the majority of the group to go along with his plan. But it’s not smooth sailing back to dry land and our heroes face several more obstacles before they can return home.

Director John Boorman presents Deliverance in a fairly simplistic manner and it’s all the better for it. A lot of the dialogue is fairly inconsequential and is used to demonstrate that these four men are quite ordinary. Indeed, even before we see their faces, we hear their voices as they plan the camping trip and let the audience know how they got to the small town. Boorman is also able to create the eerie tone of the film without going overboard and there are only one or two really big set pieces throughout the course of Deliverance. However, it’s these set pieces that set in motion the moral quandary that’s at the heart of Deliverance and I feel the film makes the audience question what they’d do in this situation. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond excels at thrusting us head first into the action and I feel he really captured the volatile nature of the outdoors. Indeed most of Deliverance happens outside and it’s this exposure to the elements that changes the four men forever. I was really compelled by the majority of Deliverance, but I feel the pace really lagged once the men made it onto dry land. The final scenes, in which they attempted to cover up what had happened during their trip, dragged on too long for my liking.
Of the four central actors, I found Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty the most engaging as novice explorers Drew and Bobby. Beatty in particular was outstanding during the violent scene whilst Cox made Drew the group’s moral leader. After watching his performances in both Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, it was interesting to see Jon Voight play a down-to-Earth everyman. I feel Voight really took to the role of Ed and I found he was at home here equally as much as he was playing a more outlandish character. Due to the fact that he was a major box office star at the time, I feel Burt Reynolds was the biggest name in Deliverance. But to me he made Lewis quite a caricature and he was the character I was least interested in overall. Another memorable element of Deliverance is the duelling banjos scene which is uplifting early on but later takes on a sinister undertone every time the tune is subsequently played in the film. Ultimately I found Deliverance a film with a simple story that was well-filmed and well-acted and one that poses a moral dilemma that we can all relate to.


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