Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? A harrowing drama about a boating trip gone awry.
What did I get? The only canonical man-rape movie, Deliverance is also the ultimate men’s masterpiece. Women might be exempt from its charms — I’d love to hear some female perspectives on this — but for the Y chromosome set at least, it cuts so deep and is so economical about its subject matter that it almost plays unfair, targeting an emotional place most movies won’t go. On their own merits, the core events of the movie flirt with exploitation or even slander; the overarching theme of man’s wanton destruction of the river valley transforms Deliverance into a penetrating (sorry) and wise work of art.
Ed, Bobby, Drew, and Lewis, expertly played by Voight, Beatty, Cox, and Reynolds, respectively, embark on a canoeing weekend in the Atlanta area, with catastrophic results. We’re told that in a matter of months this scarcely touched part of the world will no longer exist, for a new dam will flood everything around for miles. The trio of complacent urbanites are forced to follow the lead of Lewis, who habitually flaunts his greater knowledge of wildlife and incipient survivalist tendencies. The foursome’s awe in the face of the beautiful valley itself suggests a perspective available only to outsiders.
The two things everyone remembers about Deliverance are the banjo scene and the rape scene. Time away from the movie will tend to delete from the memory banks not only the movie’s uneasy coda but also Lewis’s opening words (uttered off-camera): “They’re building a dam across the Cahulawassee River…. They’re drowning the river, man…. Just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfucked-up river in the South.” The unmotivated demolition explosion that punctuates these comments is arguably the most violent act in this violent yet beatific movie — setting the tone for the mayhem to come. The Atlantans may be the victims of a hillbilly ambush, but, to invoke a phrase familiar to every child, they started it.
No matter how obnoxious Lewis is towards the locals, he is in no way responsible for the horrors that befall them; their comeuppance is generalized. And counter to expectation, it’s not Lewis who excels under duress but Ed, who must sacrifice his treasured comforts of civilization to protect the group, in a disruption of predictable cause and effect; for, as Ecclesiastes had it, “time and chance happeneth to them all.” The sole defender of the legal system, Drew, is also the only one to perish, heightening the group’s urgency — and sense of right.
Civilized urban man is framed as inferior to his rural, “real” counterpart, but the former wins all the battles that count, providing Deliverance‘s true subject. Fodder for the movie’s best scene, “the law” benefits them — making possible the demolition of thousands of square miles of untouched nature to bolster Ed’s “smug little suburb” — and they can choose to depart from it when it conveniences them. The price they pay is to depart the valley in a shroud of enforced secrecy and shame — the scale of their guilt is for us to ponder.
What here smacks of 1972? The freshness of the hostility of rural folk towards modernity in its fuller manifestations.
IMDB score: 7.9
My score: 10
Director: John Boorman
Writer: James Dickey
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, James Dickey, Billy Redden, Bill McKinney, Herbert “Cowboy” Coward
IMDB synopsis: Canoeing down a river, four city men run into some unfriendly locals. Unable to escape from the gorge in which the river runs, the locals become more and more of a threat.