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 vulnerable like the body.
When their canoes get separated, Ed and Bobby go ashore to get their bearings. They soon encounter two hunters in the woods, one of them wielding a shotgun. When, out of awkwardness and fear, Bobby admits to being lost and then talks down to them, he is raped by one of the men. Before they 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. But 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 in his nightmares, a haunting that you know would never go away.
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 maintains that hypnotic power, casting an uneasy spell and sweeping aside all assumptions and ideas of invulnerability. The movie ends with a body emerging out of a body of water in the dreams 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.