Nominated for three Academy Awards, 1972’s Deliverance is an influential thriller set along the Chattooga River in Georgia. For men from Atlanta set off into the wilderness to take a canoe trip down a portion of river which is soon to be hundreds of feet below a newly dammed lake. Their trip takes a decidedly and unexpectedly dangerous turn when some of the locals take a disliking to the party. Famous for a distressing scene of rape, the movie is much harder than I expected and must have rattled censors forty years ago. As well as the distress caused by these and other scenes, there is also great beauty to be found in the landscape and it’s captured wonderfully by Director John Boorman.
The movie features what we’d consider today to be an all-star cast with Hollywood heavyweights Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds leading the cast. Ned Beatty makes his screen debut alongside Ronny Cox, also a first time screen actor here. The acting is great throughout and the characters are well defined from the start. From the very first scene the audience is made aware of exactly who is who and what their main traits are. This helps to get the film off to a good start as well as easing the audience in.
The film and its setting have become influential in the last forty years of thriller and horror movies. It felt very familiar to me, a child of the 90s, having grown up with the likes of Wrong Turn and other films set in the deepest, darkest, hill-billiest parts of Georgia. As soon as you set eyes on the first locals you say to yourself, “Right, this is where the movie’s heading. Strap in”. Knowing little about the movie, I assumed it was about some guys who got into trouble in the water or with developers but as soon as the stereotypical locals make an appearance, you know where it’s leading.
There’s a fantastic early scene which has become known as ‘duelling banjos’. In it, Drew (Ronny Cox) plays guitar with a local inbred and deformed boy who shows incredible aptitude for the banjo. The music is brilliant and its effect resonates through the entire movie. The single song forms the basis of the sparse score, popping up for just a bar or two here and there. For the most part though, the only sound to be heard is that of the river and surrounding forest. This gives the film a frequent roaring sound which is peppered with moments of still silence. Occasionally I got sick of the sound of the rapids but its deafening effect helps to separate the characters from the rest of the world and heighten the feeling of being cut off.
The scenes of canoeing through the white water can be quite exhilarating and there were several moments where I was expecting a capsized canoe and men in the water. The actors navigate the river with quite some skill and Burt Reynolds in particular looks very at home in both his character and in the water. The famous attack scene is deeply unsettling, especially as I had no idea it was coming. Even when the ‘chase’ begins, I was still expecting a physical rather than sexual assault. Jon Voight’s helplessness in this scene only helps to play the violence up and acts as a mirror for our own helplessness while watching.
Other than the more adult scenes, the film as a whole reminded me a little of the boy’s own adventures that would become popular a decade or so later. Films such as Stand by Me and The Goonies were in my head as I watched the four men set out on a blind adventure. This film has much more adult themes and isn’t aimed at a young audience but the general gist of the film is quite similar.
On the whole I was very impressed with Deliverance. It’s what I’d call a surface film as it doesn’t delve into the reasons behind why things are happening but that’s not always a bad thing. Perhaps if the reasons for the attacks had been made clear, the acts would have lost some of their barbarism? Deliverance is an often intense film with some distressing but also beautiful scenes, a couple of which will stay with me.