Deliverance is driven by nihilistic impulses that subsume all sense of morality under the unremitting decay of primal, masculine gruesomeness. The story of four Atlanta businessmen trapped and hunted in rural Northern Georgia, John Boorman’s tone poem to nature as implacable object abstains from ever empathizing with the four men. Excepting Ronny Cox’s Drew, the only primary player who even considers the value of rural natives in an eerie yet oddly touching banjo duel, by far the most famous scene from the film to this day, none of the characters fare well as moral specimens. Arriving in a village hewn out of the earth and continually threatened by it, Ned Beatty’s Bobby bellows about the place, and when redressed for potentially annoying the people of the town, his retort, “People?”, suggests his ignorance about the location he now inhabits.
Yet the most baleful “other” in Deliverance is no person, but the hinterland of Mother Earth. The location is the wrong corner of Georgia to invoke the chokingly murky swamplands of South Georgia (but then the world bequeaths us with real winners like Frogs from the same year as Deliverance, so all your Deep South bases are covered). But, with Vilmos Zsigmond in tow, hot on the heels of lensing McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the most resplendent and provocatively visual films ever made, we could probably be glimpsing director John Boorman’s backyard and the film would still clench our necks. Deliverance is no McCabe, but its husky, meaty corpse doesn’t wish to be, even if Zsigmond does carbon copy at least a portion of McCabe’s misty subjective pallor to submerse us in a South that is both a grounded, animalistic exclamation point and an unquantifiably ghostly question mark severed from reality.
Deliverance shouldn’t be excused for its horrendously grotesque view of Appalachian people as gargoyles in quasi-human masks, mind you. There’s a nihilistic “playing with images of poverty to equalize the so-called middle class by knocking them down from their perch” vibe to the film. But that doesn’t preclude the film from critique for its visual treatment of rural types as objects in the first place. Boorman’s theoretical counterbalance, not entirely ineffective, is to tackle, and drown, the assumptions of superiority found in the four well-to-do types.
More obvious examples of the film’s treatment of congealed masculinity are purely narrative. For instance, the men, especially Jon Voight’s mercurial Ed, end up wielding the very violence threatened upon them in the first place. But the more subterranean questions percolate not in the film’s narrative content, but in its positively greasy form. Take a partially known but pre-fame Burt Reynolds, the fourth of the men, and his increasingly pompous, vacant proclamations of “connection with nature”, initially genuine retorts to his fellow travelers that eventually curdle into pithy, self-obsessed beliefs in his own masculine ability to conquer nature.
The real star of the film, however, is the ever-capricious Boorman, on a relative hot streak by this time that would gallantly turn to smithereens with his slovenly psuedo-art-house-think-piece Zardoz and his gleefully maniacal Exorcist sequel. For the moment though, Boorman’s perch between a guerrilla-style unstable camera and crisper, more lean-and-mean presentation galvanizes the film in a thoroughly unpredictable energy.
Boorman informs the film’s expression of human fallibility with occasional flights of vigorous style, but the most part, he allows his grubby mise-en-scene to do the talking. Deliverance bears the same taciturn brutishness that formed the architecture of his best film, 1967’s slick Euro-thriller Point Blank with a stone cold Lee Marvin in the lead role, but what astounds is how antithetical the two films are. Thematically, questions of the ouroborous of revenge subsume both films, but while Point Blank was an icy statue of dehumanized, monomaniacal sangfroid, Deliverance is a quivering mass of fleshy entrails panicking before our very eyes.
Early in the film, a resident of the North Georgian wilderness imparts a slice of world-weary wisdom in the native tongue of a true Southerner: “What the hell you want to go fuck around with that river for?” One of the four Atlantans, their nobility in question, matter-of-factly retorts: “Because it’s there”, the realization that they had never considered their trip as anything other than a predetermined fact lingering on his breath. Resisting easy metaphors about America’s knee-jerk imperialism in Vietnam, the film more obstreperously proposes a more fundamental critique of the masculine, American impulse to conquer and expand. It rebuffs Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, a valorization of America’s fascination with land expansion as a mechanism of liberal humanity tied to landed property and democracy. Deliverance proposes that the real call of the wild was to find an ego fix for men who wanted to prove that they, like the land they inhabited but felt they were entitled to, were special. They had only one mechanism for pursing said goals: ensnaring themselves in a dialectical tension between them and that land, disrupting harmony with the threat of superiority and falling prey to their own flailing flesh.