Deliverance

3 out of 5

Directed by: John Boorman

Images have power. A statement I doubt many would disagree with. However, I think it can be easy to fall into a belief that the images in older media – movies, for example – if / when they’re intended to shock or stir a similar sentiment, may not have the same impact X years later. After all, one need only watch an episode of a TV show like Walking Dead or American Horror Story, then compare to R-rated movies from (at the time those began) a decade earlier to see how much more violence is acceptable to the “average” viewer, with similarly shifted standards regarding sex and language. And then there’s the actual experience of watching some of those ‘shocking’ moments, even within the frame of your own lifetime: something that seemed so frightening or horrifying as a kid, then you revisit it as an adult, and it’s rather ho-hum.

I had not previously seen Deliverance, but I was certainly aware of its cultural context, re: squeal like a pig. Based on my understanding of the movie, and having read some back-of-the-box synopses – that it was kind of a survival quest flick – this scene always sounded rather out of place, and alongside the movie including some notable stars (Burt Reynolds, John Voigt) – suggesting we might not really veer into anything too unglamorous – and that the aforementioned quote was often turned into a punchline, and alongside my prattle up above, it was hard to expect the movie to carry much impact, years after the fact.

But the movie – or specifically the rape sequence I’m highlighting – absolutely has power. Boorman and cinematographer Vimos Zsigmond employ, for many stretches of the film and inclusive of this one, a very casual-observer, earthily-toned and lit POV and tone: the lens is often behind branches or other obstructions; musical cues are minimal; character interactions are stumbling and conversational; the nature in which the movie takes place is neither especially gorgeous or “brutal,” it just is. And that’s how this scene evolves and occurs: with Ned Beatty’s and John Voight’s characters running across some locals in the woods, having paused in their down-river rafting, and a somewhat offhand, though adversarial chat becoming more and more hostile, and then there are guns and knives pointed, and people getting tied up. The scene is devoid of the shouts or tears or posturing we might see in most of this type, though it’s surely notable that all involved are male – still (several decades on) an unusual arrangement for a depiction of rape in media. However, even saying this is “notable” is how the interaction maintains its shocking effect: there is no obvious “point” being made here. It… happens.

This approach swings towards positives and negatives; purposeful and accidental.

On the plus side is the lead up to this infamous moment: our four leads fit into pretty clean “types” – the aggressive one; the poetic one; the submissive one; the funny one – and the movie does not try to really flesh this out, which rather adds to the naturalistic vibe of the piece from the get-go: there are not any usual narrative devices trying to establish who, what, where, and when beyond minimums. This further extends to the locals, denizens of a land soon to be turned completely into a lake and depicted squarely as “hillbilly” stereotypes; we can effectively “other” them because they are other: inhuman, just as our leads are one-dimensional. And if you think this sounds like a generally bad thing for a movie, it ultimately is, exactly because of its lack of depth. While this is effective in creating shallow waters – no pun intended – into which we can immediately jump in and get swept up, and there’s certainly some intention with then juxtaposing that with the seriousness of the rape, we don’t go anywhere with the concept thereafter. That’s the negative. Boorman, James Dickey’s script, the actors (and so, perhaps, their direction) – all are confused as to what kind of movie it is in its last half: is it an adventure? Horror? Psychological drama? …And because we’re rather dealing with the kind of story that has layers, but isn’t able to speak to them, it rather falls apart as it goes on, things deflating almost immediately when the moments after this central sequence – our four chaps deciding what to do – lack gravity, and logic.

The purposeful and accidental comment is regarding the shooting style. As mentioned, much of the film has this very organic, immersive feel. But it was low budget, and though that means we get some impressive – though dangerous – moments with our actors very clearly doing stunts they probably should not have been doing – there’s also a rushed, first-take nature to these shots that suddenly feels so amateurish against the more considered camera work. And the (presumably) day-for-night mountain climb sequence is so grossly tinted as to be distracting, very much undermining what is a second, central sequence in the flick.

I was not bored with Deliverance, and though it’s questionable whether the ‘squeal like a pig’ moment’s effectiveness is a good or bad thing – given its possible lack of place when the movie may not have much of a point – I cannot deny its effectiveness, nor that there was so much potential in the presentation and script up through this point. And if I were to separate what followed into a different, more action / adventure flick, it holds up as entertainment, balancing out the rating overall.