Poet and author James Dickey was once asked by TV host Dick Cavett what his novel Deliverance was about. “It’s about why decent men kill,” he answered dryly. That’s certainly the plot of both the 1970 novel and John Boorman’s feature film (1974). But it’s also like saying Macbeth is about why kings get ambitious. The power of Deliverance actually lies somewhere beyond the plot into something more mysterious and fragile like the body. The story is about four Atlanta businessmen – the macho wilderness man Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the beefy, insecure insurance salesman Bobby (Ned Beatty), the affable musician Drew (Ronny Cox) and the thoughtful Ed (Jon Voight) – who decide to canoe down the (fictional) Cahulawassee River in Georgia in order to “commune” with nature before the river valley gets flooded and displaces the mountain locals. With the exception of Lewis, who is a man’s-man like the deerslayer of James Fenimore Cooper (or De Niro’s Michael in The Deer Hunter), and Ed (who has joined Lewis on a few expeditions); the other men are complete innocents. The locals they encounter are also deeply reserved folks isolated from the world these suburban males inhabit and some – like the young boy who duets with Drew on the famous “Duelling Banjos” – are part of inbred families. Lewis and friends, feeling their own false sense of superiority over the inhabitants, still take on the river as if to tame the body of water. What they discover along the way, however, is that nature can’t be tamed and the body is a vulnerable entity.
When their canoes get separated, Ed and Bobby go ashore to get their bearings. They soon encounter two hunters in the woods with one of them wielding a shotgun. When, out of awkwardness and fear, Bobby admits to being lost and then talks down to them, he gets raped by one of the men. Before the mountain men can turn next to Ed, Lewis emerges and kills the rapist with his crossbow while the other man escapes. At this point, they have to decide whether to bury the body or talk to the authorities about the crime. Lewis reminds them that he doesn’t want to go to trial with that man’s relatives on the jury. So they agree to cover-up the crime. However, the men are affected differently. While Lewis takes refuge in his machismo, Ed is morally conflicted. Drew is shattered and Bobby is so traumatized that he seeks to forget the horror done to him. When they return to the body of water, everything has changed. A body has been raped, a body has been buried, a body is on the loose hunting them down – and the body of water is now taming them. Before long another body would be buried in the water and one of them would see that body again in his nightmares, a haunting that you knew would never go away.
You can see the influence of Deliverance in later films like Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981), or especially, torture porn like the Australian terror picture Wolf Creek (2005). But no film has caught the ambiance of invasive horror quite like this movie. (Hill’s picture was essentially Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians recast as a superbly directed action thriller while Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek simply exploited one’s dread at being held captive by a psychopath.) In Deliverance, John Boorman dives into the psychology of the body politic. Before his role as Lewis, Reynolds had been nothing more than an action star – a handsome, smiling stud who played his roles in Navajo Joe (1966) and Shark (1969) with casual indifference. But, in Deliverance, Reynolds delves into Lewis’s machismo, a man whose identity and authority is dictated solely by his virile strength. When he gets seriously injured late in the picture, Lewis becomes as helpless as a child and unable to lead because all of his confidence and sense of self is shattered by his broken bones. If Lewis is defined by his physical strength, Bobby is the reverse. He’s uncomfortable in his flabby skin, so when he tries to act macho the mountain hunters see right through him. Perceived as physical freaks by this city dweller, they immediately act out Bobby’s worst fantasies of a hillbilly. Drew is at home in his body but only in so far as everybody else is at home in theirs (when he tries to shake the hand of the inbred kid he’s just been dueling banjos with he appears baffled when the boy turns away). The movie has a constant awareness of physicality, so much so that you feel acutely aware of your own body when the film is over.
It’s hard to imagine a major Hollywood studio taking on a project like this today (it was a daring decision even back then). Movie rape (usually male on female) has often been the staple of action pictures to jack up excitement, or a blood lust in the audience. Here it was a man being raped and there was no prurient intent in the staging. And to have a bankable star like Reynolds risking alienating his fan base would be highly unlikely in today’s more predictable star packages coming out of Hollywood. But the real wild card was certainly John Boorman, a Brit, tackling an American subject with a Hungarian cinematographer (Vilmos Zsigmond). They both bring an ample curiosity afforded cultural outsiders and Zsigmond's smooth takes are alternately hypnotic in their beauty and filled with a hidden menace.
I saw Deliverance a couple of years after its release while in college and I caught part of it again last week on Mpix. It still casts an uneasy spell and sweeps aside all assumptions and ideas about invulnerability. The movie ends with a hand emerging out of a body of water in the nightmare of a man coming out of the assumed safety of sleep. No wonder the theatre audience then was so hushed when the lights came up.