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Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)

   

    The domineering air of macho aggression that fuels so much of John Boormanís Deliverance often recedes into the background to allow a more ruminative mood to rise up, but the two tones never really meet to form the grand statement that seems to be lurking somewhere behind the violent outbursts and painterly nature photography that leave the strongest impressions. Much of the problem lies with the movieís script, which strains to deliver more than the average action film, but remains too doggedly faithful to the demands of the genre to transcend it. The Heart of Darkness-inspired downriver descent to Hell gives the movie a clean narrative line to follow with ample opportunities for suspense (though the land-locked final scenes oddly feel the most adrift and aimless), but the generally lousy dialogue is so blunt in spelling out the filmís Big Themes that it raises the suspicion of pretentiousness and causes the believability of the situation to falter. Perhaps, though, itís the castís fault for not better delivering the lines they were given. The start of the film uses relatively few close-ups by Hollywood standards, and as a result the characters seem a bit distanced from the viewer. When a catastrophic trauma forces audience identification and introduces chaos into the mix about forty minutes into the movie, the cameraís style changes, bringing the audience closer to the protagonists, but the actors remain a bit aloof. For example, thereís a key scene where the men assume a feral position, frantically digging a hole with their hands, but it doesnít work as well as it should because the required intensity from the cast just isnít present.

   

    The times when Deliverance really comes alive are when the actors shut up and the action takes over, which fortunately happens quite often. Boormanís numerous set pieces each are extremely well-directed, and each of them has an imminent sense of danger that adds to the increasing sense of unease that dots the treacherous journey downstream. The famous dueling-banjos sequence near the filmís start seems to preface Spielbergís finale in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the way that it uses music to momentarily connect the characters with what is, for all intents and purposes, an alien life form. Since the sequence comes at the start of the film, instead of as a payoff thatís been calculated to obliterate most of the audienceís fear, the brief flirtation with communicativeness ensures that as soon as the scene ends the verbal and cultural gaps that exist between these two societies become more pronounced. The inscrutable temperaments of the rednecks that populate the natural world of Deliverance reflect the filmís attitude toward nature itself. At one point Burt Reynoldís character makes a remark that, ďYou don't beat this river.Ē  In a less astute film, such a statement might be mistaken for wisdom. Here the proclamation seems to suggest his, and modern manís, pomposity in thinking nature is something that can even be defined as conquerable or unconquerable. The raging rapids that the men canoe down are so wildly unknowable that even an admission of their wildness seems too much a definition for comfort. Itís all the more unfortunate then, that given Deliveranceís high level of perception when looking at manís relationship with his environment, no one had the good sense to eliminate its excessive thematic baggage. In comparison to its look at nature, its inspections of religion, camaraderie, and society come up short.

 

* * * 

11-27-02 

Jeremy Heilman