Starring: Burt Reynolds, John Voigt, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty
Director: John Boorman
Screenwriter: James Dickey
The idea of “mountain men” has been one that has pervaded American society since urbanism and suburbanism became more widespread. Deliverance is perhaps the first movie to portray the idea of the outside urbanites or suburbanites going into an ultra-rural, Appalachia-esque setting and, essentially, getting in way over their heads. Deliverance is, at times, scary, and there are scenes that have become iconic since its original release, but the overall result of the movie leaves one somewhat detached, and hollow. Some films do this effectively, but in many ways, Deliverance is as flat as the conventions it follows. The fear that’s evoked from a couple of scenes never truly follows through to the end, and so I was left wondering what the point of it all was.
It follows four Atlanta businessmen, played by Burt Reynolds, John Voigt, Ronny Cox, and Ned Beatty, as they go into the deep, rural wilderness to have what they believe will be a fun canoeing trip. They’re obviously outsiders to their surroundings, and the film does a decent, though conventional job of distinguishing the stark differences between them and the people they encounter in a shack on the hill. Here is where one of the iconic scenes I had mentioned takes place, with one of the characters, Drew (Cox), plays a banjo duet with a boy at the house. It’s probably the most enjoyable scene of the film, and it’s understandable why it’s become so iconic. Most people I’ve met, even if they haven’t seen Deliverance, know “dueling banjos.” After this, the men then take off onto the river in their canoes.
On the second day of their canoeing trip, the four get separated, and Ed and Bobby (Voigt and Beatty respectively) go to shore to get their bearings. There, they encounter a pair of hillbillies, one of them carrying a shotgun. They talk for a few minutes, with an obvious tension, but then a comment about moonshine seems to set them off and they physically assault both Ed and Bobby, tying Ed up and then, in what’s another well-known scene from the film, raping Bobby while telling him to “squeal like a pig.” After a while, and in the middle of the commotion, Lewis (Reynolds) comes to the rescue and kills the rapist with an arrow from his hunting bow, and the other hillbilly escapes.
Around that point, or perhaps slightly after it, the film starts to devolve. There is a brief debate among the men about whether they should alert the authorities about what happened, but they eventually continue on their way. The hillbilly, with the help of some of his friends, chases the men through the woods, across the river, etc. It’s all well and good, but it’s so conventional: men go into unknown neck of the woods, piss off the locals, get attacked, chased, and finally end up okay in the end. Of course the cop is related to one of the dead hillbillies. And of course the hillbillies aren’t given any real motivation aside from, “they’re city folk.” That’s not deep. That’s not important. It’s just lazy.
If there’s an effectiveness to the film, it’s in the build-up, but not the payoff. By making the hillbillies devoid of any real human characteristics, and implying that they’re perhaps driven to attack, rape, and attempt to kill the men simply because the men are outsiders and they’re perhaps inbred, turns them into basic monsters. They’re stereotyped hillbillies. It would be no different than telling the story by making the four men into ruralites going into the inner city and getting attacked by black gangsters. Of course the mountain men are inbred, just as those gangsters would be black. It’s cliché, and not in a way one can appreciate it. Furthermore, the film has hints at the psychology the four men undergo, but only slightly, in the scene where they debate what to do, and slightly in the very last shot of the film. But it feels hollow, without a true message one can connect to aside from, “don’t go canoeing in a rural place or you might get raped by a hillbilly.”
Perhaps I’m at an inherent disadvantage, not seeing the film when it first came out in 1972. Perhaps then it was something new, original, and shocking. Although certain aspects of it are still shocking (such as the rape scene), it does not feel new. It has not aged well. It has certain points of effectiveness, and a couple of scenes that work, but overall, it just falls flat. If the testament of a great film is that it can feel important, relevant, or even simply entertaining, no matter when it’s seen, then Deliverance isn’t a great film. And I’m not even sure it’s even a very good one.