★★★★ / ★★★★
Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is an experienced outdoorsman and thinks that he and his friends could use some relaxation. Along with Ed (Jon Voight), Drew (Ronny Cox), and Bobby (Ned Beatty), they decide to drive up to a wilderness in northern Georgia to go canoeing down a river before it gets turned into a dam. Although the trip starts off promisingly, their romantic view of their vacation turns grim when an encounter with two locals lead to a sexual assault and murder.
It is a shame that “Deliverance,” based on the novel and screenplay by James Dickey, is mostly remembered for one scene involving a rape and a film often referenced when horror-thrillers feature inbred hillbillies as villains. In actuality, it is less about rape and lack of genetic variation within a community. It is a tale of survival when surrounded by the unknown and the lengths many of us might be willing to go through to have another chance at leading a life after experiencing an event so important, to keep it a secret is tantamount to lugging around feelings of guilt for as long as one lives.
The film has a noteworthy opening sequence involving Drew with an acoustic guitar and a boy with a banjo (Billy Redden). It sets up an level of energy that the film maintains during scenes when not much is happening and commands when something is worthy of attention. The set-up is simple: Drew plays several chords and the boy repeats. Eventually, though, they break out from the formulas they establish and create music that both the strangers and locals can appreciate. A brisk but controlled editing is employed, coupling shots of the instruments with faces. Although the camera jumps back and forth, our senses our immersed in five areas: the music, how the instrument is handled and played, and the reactions of the artists and the listeners.
The look of the picture becomes all the more impressive as the canoes make their way down the river. There are plenty of wide shots so we can appreciate the space, how small the characters are compared to the nature that they think is there to be enjoyed. It is smart that close-ups during such scenes are kept to a minimum. It serves as a reminder that we are the observers of the experience so it is likely that we are more keen on the dangers of the environment. We see farther than the characters because they tend to pay more attention on the rate of paddling and which direction to orient the canoe. It is most gripping when the narrow boats must make their way through jagged rocks and fierce rapids. We know that something will go very wrong eventually so the anticipation works its magic.
Equally engaging is the moral quandary that the men go through when a corpse waits for its fate. One of them suggests that they bury the body where it is not easy to find. Another suggests that it must be reported to the police because they are responsible. I liked that it does not make an obvious point that there is a difference between responsibility and guilt. If we were in their shoes, even I am not sure whether I would be able to discern between the two terms and what they imply. But since we are the audience, it is absolutely something worth thinking about.
Directed by John Boorman, “Deliverance” presents varying levels of violence but they are not self-indulgent. I believe the intention is to get us to think about decisions and consequences. At one point, the screenplay almost forces us to ponder for what it feels like an extended period that its pacing turns quite stagnant a little bit past its halfway point. Those who have really taken a look at the film and thought about it will–and should, I think–remember the quieter moments. Reckless comparisons of this film with the horror and savagery of inbred people is an indication of being ill-informed.