film note: Deliverance

Middle-class masculinity in crisis

Deliverance
Directed by John Boorman
1h 49min, USA, 1972

This pastoral gothic survival thriller has lost a lot of its power since 1972, because of the parodies and the horror sub-genre it spawned, and well, because it’s so obviously an emasculation fantasy. The action sequences are the least successful to watch twenty years after the first time I saw it, but it’s still creepy and weird and beautiful.

It’s also cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s best and most suggestive work, with its forest-after-the-rain color palette and widescreen riverscape compositions and especially an understanding of the power of close-ups — that sheriff leaning into the car during the film’s last five minutes and clicking his back-teeth. I would have loved to watch Zsigmond shoot the confrontation between Jon Voight and the Toothless Man that takes place on a cliff over the river. The setup (It’s just after the credits: a 2-minute 14-second wide shot consisting of a static shot, a pan and a quick dolly back, encompassing all the characters, their personalities and how like arrogant fish-out-of-water they are.) and wind-down sequences really are my favorites, particularly the taxi ride through the soon-to-be-underwater town, as they follow a Church of Christ on wheels. Amazing.

Having said that, both he and director John Boorman seem a little clueless about the flaming subtext in James Dickey’s book, or maybe they weren’t because the script removes most of it, and almost all of the envy/admiration and macho tension between the 4 friends who take the canoe trip is gone, too. All that’s left is Burt Reynolds’ biceps, hairy chest and forearms and Voight’s pretty, suffering face. And lips, remember?

Oh, and that rape scene. Ned Beatty with his ass up in the air, facedown in the leaves and his underwear around his ankles — who could forget that?

See? Weird.

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Deliverance
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