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Blu-ray Review: Deliverance (1972)

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Going to the movie theater today to see an action movie or a thriller, one isn’t surprised to see something impossibly over the top and utterly ridiculous take place.  Regularly, one requires a greater degree of suspension of disbelief than one may have in the past – huge CGI monsters blend perfectly with that which is real, things leap off the screen in full 3D glory, and blood flies in all directions.  Film has always, to some extent, been about spectacle, and as our technology has evolved, the level of spectacle has only increased. 

While some of that makes wonderful movies possible, one also gets the sense from time to time that we’ve lost something, that relying so heavily on the newest, latest, and greatest filmmaking techniques has actually served to distance the viewer rather than pulling them in.  Sometimes all that one needs to give the viewer a great thrill is to just get up close and personal with characters and with real-life horror and that seems to be something we forget today.

One need look no further than 1972’s Deliverance for the perfect example of just how intense, how gripping, and how personal a movie can be, even if it doesn’t use tons of effects and trickery to make its point.

Directed by John Boorman and beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, the film stars Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox in a tale of men fighting not only nature but other men as well.  James Dickey wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, and it follows four men who opt to go on a river-rafting trip on the Cahulawassee River before its dammed and turned into a lake.

The film starts out as a tale about the evil that men do destroying nature, with Lewis (Reynolds) clearly the driving force behind convincing this group that something wonderful will be lost once the dam is created.  Travelling with Lewis are Ed (Voight), Drew (Cox), and Bobby (Beatty), all of whom kind of sort of almost accept Lewis’ proposition, but far more are just out for a nice weekend away.  They certainly have their reasons for going, Ed unquestionably has inner demons he’s fighting, but everyone but Lewis probably would have accepted a nice weekend golfing.  But, they don’t, instead they opt to brave the rapids and end up having to brave the locals as well. 

Deliverance is one of those movies you’re not sure would get made today.  With few exceptions, the film’s depiction of the locals is not just negative, but unreservedly so.  They are not just missing teeth and dirty, but they’re allegedly inbred and certainly rape and torture visitors for kicks.  Eventually the movie becomes less about man vs. nature and turns into a tale of man vs. man, with Lewis and company literally fighting for their lives against seen and unseen foes.

Just as the movie has terrible things to say about “progress” it is equally disparaging of those who make nature their home.  In fact, while Ed and Drew are, perhaps, shown in the best light, they’re two characters about whom the film gives us incredibly little; they may only be better because we don’t know who they really are. 

Deliverance doesn’t solely succeed based on its characters or due to any argument it may be making about the advancement of civilization, but rather because it is a visceral thrill ride, one in which these four guys have to fight all comers, be they nature- or man-made.  At 110 minutes, it isn’t terribly short, but it is exceptionally lean – these guys go to woods, anger the locals, and have a hell of a time getting back to the real world.  But, even once they’re back, they’re not unscathed, they are going to relive what happened on the Cahulawassee River for the rest of their lives, and they’re almost certainly just going to go play golf next time.

Once the movie gets going it truly does not stop.  Just as one always has to be on the lookout for rocks and rapids when out on the water, in Deliverance, danger is always near.  It may be beautiful to look at (and Zsigmond’s cinematography is beautiful even if some of the day-for-night shooting doesn’t work all that well), but it is equally deadly.

Deliverance is also one of those movies that, whether one realizes it or not, has entered our popular culture, perhaps most notably with “Dueling Banjos,” an iconic piece of music from the film which one is surprised occurs so early in the goings-on.  It is a great piece of music and a touching moment in the film. 

Where Boorman really succeeds though with Deliverance is that everything, even this incredibly happy, incredibly heartfelt moment, is undercut but an ominous sense of foreboding.  Drew is playing the song with one of the local boys and Lewis and Bobby haven’t been terribly kind to the locals already.  There is, despite the happiness of the song, the sense that the journey for these four guys may end before they even get to the river, just as there’s a sense at the end of the movie, even when they’re off the river, that they may never make it home.  From opening to closing, Deliverance refuses to allow its characters—or its viewers—to feel safe and comforted. 

That is why it works.  That is why it’s such a good movie, and that is why it’s worth owning on Blu-ray.

In terms of special features, the only new one here is a 30 minute talk in which the four main cast members sit down (at the Burt Reynolds Museum) and talk about what brought them to the project, how it played out, and the response to the film (there is also a booklet that comes with the disc).  Voight takes the lead for much of the talk and Reynolds is rather quiet, but it really is a very interesting discussion.  Also included are a couple of pieces of varying age including a very good, nearly hour long, retrospective covering just about every aspect of filming.  An audio commentary from Boorman exists as well.

The new Blu-ray release of Deliverance delivers its visuals in good style.  The print is a very clean one and while there is a little flicker from time to time, it isn’t terribly noticeable.  Although clean, the print retains its grain and certainly looks a product of its time.  The colors aren’t eye-popping, but the greenery is certainly lush and the level of detail very good.  The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is equally strong.  Having been made 40 years ago, Deliverance doesn’t have the same full use of surrounds one would expect from a film today, but the audio track is free of pops and distortions.  Additionally, the sounds of the raging water really do play out very nicely.  For an older film, it does sound very full.  It doesn’t quite put the viewer on the canoe as it might in today’s day and age, but it isn’t in any way disappointing.

Deliverance is just a well-made thriller.  It serves as a lesson that big effects and tons of gore aren’t needed to grip an audience – what is required are good characters, good acting, and tense situations.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.