DVD - Image B Sound C Extras B
BD - Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox
screenplay by James Dickey, based on his novel
directed by John Boorman
by Walter Chaw Deliverance is mesmerizing. Emerging fully-formed from the rich, black loam of the best period of filmmaking definitely in the United States and possibly in the history of cinema, it pistons its roots unerringly into the darkest corners of our species' memory. In the second-most memorable moment of the film (the one where kind-hearted city-slicker Drew (Ronny Cox) eases into a guitar/banjo duel with a local kid (Billy Redden)), Boorman dangles the possibility that there could be civility between the spoilers and the spoiled before retracting it for the remainder of the picture's running time. If Boorman is our pre-eminent keeper of the Arthurian legend, it's useful to wonder in this particular quest undertaken what are the dark spirits of the wood, and what is the grail? The final image of the piece, after all, suggests a corruption of the Excalibur iconography offered from some fathomless underneath. The essential Western phallus is perverted in Deliverance into the promise that the primal will never be repressed for long.
If there's a lesson to this quintessentially nihilistic picture, it's that all of tamed society is just the thin cloth covering a stiff dick. Not much of a defense against it on the one hand, and just a brush away from angry tumescence on the other. No great surprise, then, that the most elemental, virile actor of his generation would be cast, at the height of his braggadocio (Burt Reynolds), as the film's Alpha. (In the Fifties, it would've been Marlon Brando. The Sixties? Steve McQueen. Maybe Russell Crowe today.) And said Alpha will be reduced to blubbering jelly by the end. It seems only a matter of course in that light that the film's gentle heart (its "moral conscience") is eventually stilled, and that the most memorable scene of Deliverance is of domination, extended humiliation, and rape. The "deliverance" of the title is multi-foliate, natch, but perhaps most effectively applied to the "freedom" of "everyman" Ed (Jon Voight) from the illusion of civilization.
A river is about to be damned in Georgia's Rabun County; hell-bent on "experiencing" the area before it becomes a hydroelectric reservoir, weekend warrior Lewis (Reynolds) leads three of his suburban buddies on an impromptu canoe trip ahead of the coming flood. A premise already packed with archetypal resonance, add to it the idea that the films of 1972 are a looking glass held to what was widely perceived as the complete collapse of western civilization. Deliverance can be a useful Vietnam allegory of technologically-superior white men on a trip down a river towards truths about personal hearts of darkness; think of it as a bookend to the similarly-structured Apocalypse Now, with a similar quartet of avatars for different facets of society engaged in some ill-advised tourism. (It in fact arrives the same year as Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God--another remarkable river trip led by another monomaniac, beset upon by another return of the repressed.) It can also be a Romanticist piece to the extent that it bemoans the loss of the Natural to encroaching industry--only the Natural in this instance isn't idealized, but rather made savage and delivered of any notion of an anthropomorphized god (very much Herzog's Nature). In its way, it's a true evocation of the Romanticist theology, where Nature is the first testament to an overarching, Darwinist universal morality. Dog eat dog, an eye for an eye, so sayeth the Lord.
In this context, re-read the homily that the meek shall inherit the Earth as the assumption that the king of the hill is the one who best lays aside the illusion that man is anything more than an animal pretending to not be one. When Lewis is incapacitated, leaving mild Ed as their last hope for survival in the wilderness, the passing of the baton is enacted by an urgent, grit-toothed "Now you get to play the game." It's after Ed loses his wallet and the picture of his family that he's used to summon strength that the "game" is well and truly joined. Games, Deliverance reminds, are how children learn the tools for survival: to be cunning, to be ruthless, to probe the outer limits of the rules. In a real way, the city slickers (save Lewis) are children, and this trip is the process of their awakening to the briars in the thicket surrounding their blithe existences.
Vilmos Zsigmond mutes the colours of the great outdoors, choosing a bed of brown leaves as the place of Bobby's violation and, in one magisterial shot, predicting the trip's doom in a long, devilishly complicated shot of a little boy dangling a banjo off a rope bridge. There's a thread that can be traced through the American New Wave drawing a way of looking at the American landscape through Zsigmond's work with Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye), Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), and one-offs like The Hired Hand, Winter Kills, and Scarecrow. Zsigmond, along with contemporaries Conrad Hall, Nestor Almendros, Gordon Willis, Owen Roizman, Bill Butler, and so on, defined the '70s "look"--as unmistakable an indication of the period as its paranoia and cumulative sense of entropic doom. This is what it looks like when the world falls apart--and Zsigmond's (some would say excessive) use of filters and de-saturating effects like "flashing" noisily subverted the western, the noir, the war idyll, and the road trip all at once.
Deliverance is about men in crisis forced to confer on large topics in terse conversations over the corpses of tormentors and friends who are, suddenly, reduced to ethical, existential conundrums. It's a furnace that burns away the fat laid yellow-thick over the lean sinew of the lizard brain; the picture changes you. Trace back to this point the roots of a goodly portion of the horror films that would proliferate in the latter half of the decade--the sagas of transgression that find boys and girls straying off the path to grandma's house, stirring up the primitive and enacting the reversal that sees the heroes cast in the roles of the villains for the sake of survival. (Even the blank mask of the banjo-playing boy's face seems a template for Michael Myers's blanched Shatner façade.) I asked Boorman who the good guys were in Deliverance and he assured me that there weren't any; I've come to realize that the question was flawed because the film isn't about good and bad, it's about surviving to propagate (note how the picture ends with a long contemplation of Ed's son and pregnant wife). It's mainstream cinema's ugliest, truest evocation of the idea of the selfish cell, with the sheriff (James Dickey) of the literally God-less town (the church is being moved to avoid the flood--compare to the empty church in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or the empty Madonna in The Conversation) motivated largely by an urge to protect some hillbilly's family. The "game" is biological immortality: nothing else matters half a damn. The collectivism of music is a sham, shared culture is a rumour. As coffin nails for the Sixties go, this negation of all ideological idealism is a pretty final one.
At first glance, the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer struck for the 35th anniversary Deluxe Edition of Deliverance is several grades south of that of the previous DVD--though one wonders whether the heavier greens, the increased opacity of it, doesn't actually indicate a truer representation of Zsigmond's early-Seventies inclinations. Not for nothing is Zsigmond the spiritual father of Christopher Doyle's underwater compositions--and nowhere would an aquatic colour palette be more appropriate than in a picture so dependent on tableaux of submersion and emergence. What is inexplicable is the change in font for the opening title: once in a low-key, bevelled Arial, it's now an all-caps monstrosity reflecting the 'scope dimensions of the frame. Although the quality of the video presentation is something I'm chalking up to the benefit of the doubt given Zsigmond's known tendencies (especially flanked as this movie is by McCabe, The Hired Hand, and The Long Goodbye), the DD 5.1 remix is simply flat and uninspired.
Boorman has recorded a feature-length yakker for this release that fills in all the familiar stories from the set: how the banjo kid was "ghost fretted" by a guy off camera; how James Dickey was such a nuisance that he was asked to leave the set; how Reynolds insisted on doing his own stuntwork. If all the anecdotes play like known history, more's testament to the stickiness of the finished product--its creation myth (again like Aguirre) almost as well-known as the picture itself. That problem with familiarity likewise infects the four-part documentary (53 mins. in total), wherein the principals (and the late Dickey's son) are assembled to tell the same stories once more. In fairness, I was gratified to learn that this was Ronny Cox's first picture and, more, that the grisly-looking shoulder separation his character suffered was just one of those quirks of genetics a younger version of Cox was able to effect all by his lonesome. Beatty contributes a modest, soft-spoken account of the benefit and cost of his performance and has a few nice things in particular to say about Reynolds. "The Dangerous World of Deliverance" (10 mins.) is a better-than-average vintage featurette that rounds out the presentation. Originally published: November 29, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner reissues Deliverance on Blu-ray in a DigiBook commemorating the film's 40th anniversary (almost to the day). This is not a straight repackaging of the 2007 disc, although by all reports the video transfer was not subjected to any further remastering in the interim. The insistently sharp opening and closing titles suggest it wouldn't have made a lot of difference, anyway, at least where fine detail is concerned. In fact, at times this 2.40:1, 1080p presentation almost reveals too much, with the opening explosion betraying the slight overlap of a glass matte and the solarization of those day-for-night shots as Jon Voight's Ed scales a bluff more conspicuous than ever before. I concur with Walter that the muted colours and sometimes-milky contrast are probably something we can chalk up to DP Vilmos Zsigmond's "pre-flashing" technique, though the image gives off a "print" vibe throughout that's very appealing. An A/B comparison with the DVD reveals tighter, better-defined grain, broader dynamic range, less of that yellow-green overlay, and a veritable relief map of textures. The 5.1 audio has been upgraded to DTS-HD MA, and while I'm disappointed that the original mono stems remain AWOL, the spatiality and depth of this remix are both much-improved here.
There's only one new extra to go along with the recycled supplements of the Deluxe Edition and prior Blu-ray release, but it's a pretty good one: Gary Leva's "Deliverance: The Cast Looks Back" (30 mins., HD) gathers together the four well-preserved principals--Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox--at the Burt Reynolds Museum (!) in Jupiter, Florida to reminisce about the production with forty years' hindsight. Voight assumes the moderator role to the point of butting in occasionally while an almost melancholy Reynolds takes the opposite tack, speaking only when prompted. The highlights of the piece are without a doubt those anecdotes involving the actors playing the rapists, Bill McKinney and Cowboy Coward, the latter of whom got the part because he'd starred in a theme-park attraction with Reynolds years earlier. For what it's worth, Cox appears to still be perceived as the "kid" of the group and is gently reminded of his debt to Beatty, who called in sick one night simply so that Cox, his understudy, could play Lear on stage. Also obviously new to this edition is the accompanying booklet, which features a mix of handsome vintage artwork and production notes. A loose-leaf insert advertising the book Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew is unfortunately confusing for not making clear whether this "collection of stories of the making of the iconic movie...from the perspective of Drew, i.e. Ronny Cox" was written by Cox writing in character as Drew.