Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movies: Deliverance

I almost always only watch movies at the theatre, because I don’t have a television and my laptop’s screen is particularly small. There’s a long list of old movies I want to see, but I am patient, and I wait for them to come to the theatre; the important ones usually do. But a visiting friend talked me into renting the DVD of Deliverance, and then left me alone to watch it. And so I experienced this film in a very intimate way, postcard-sized, on my burning lap, the sound wired into my ears by penetrating, plug-like buds.

If any movie should be watched this way, this is the one. Scaled down to the size of my two hands, each frame can be studied whole; they are all masterpieces, perfectly composed, perfectly framed. The calm, dark Cahulawassee River pushes through the center of the screen, carrying our four avatars downstream on an adventure; outdoorsman Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is intent on showing his more pansy friends what it means to actually live life. And then, everything goes to all to hell very fast.

The four friends are in two canoes; one has gotten ahead and pulls over to the shore for a bit. The two men walk up into the woods a bit and are confronted by filthy, toothless, gun-toting locals. One of the Oakies ties Ed (Jon Voight) to a tree and taunts him with a knife, making him watch while his friend Bobby is toyed with by the other aggressor, made to “squeal like a pig,” and is anally raped. Before Ed and Bobby are both killed, Lewis and Drew arrive on shore and Lewis dispatches Bobby’s aggressor with an arrow through the chest (Lewis, of course, is the kind of man whose weapon of choice is a crossbow; in a telling earlier scene, early in the morning and alone, Ed borrows the crossbow and tries to shoot a deer, but chokes). The second aggressor runs away, and the four men briefly argue about what to do with the dead body. Drew, the bespectacled, guitar-playing voice of societal ethics, insists that they find police and report the incident. Lewis, the earth-bound pragmatist, insists that they bury the body, row away, and never speak a word about it again. The others side with Lewis, the four bury the body, and return to their boats, the adventure ruined.

But that is not the adventure’s end. The men now have the increasing rapids of the river to contend with, and at a very strong break, the despondent Lewis, who hadn’t put on his life jacket, disappears when his wooden canoe is destroyed. The three remaining men pile onto the surviving metal canoe and keep paddling, with only survival on their mind, but they are shot at from a distance. Lewis is immobilized, Bobby has been sodomized, Drew has drowned, and it is left to Ed to climb a wall of rock, crossbow slung over his shoulder, to hunt down the toothless local they assume is shooting at them from the shore. Here is the most stunning night lighting I’ve seen in cinema, blue and chill and throbbing nevertheless, as innocent-eyed Voight hangs from a rope, clinging to fistfuls of rock, in a cold sweat. At the top of the cliff, he succeeds in his assassination, but realizes perhaps too late that the man he’s killed is likely not their previous aggressor, and getting an arrow through his own chest in the process. But he returns to the boat, and he, Bobby, and Lewis eventually make it to their destination, noticing Drew’s mangled, drowned body on the way.

Back on shore, before they can pile back into their station wagons, they are treated by the local doctor, and grilled by the local police. Their agreed-to story, though thin, holds, and they are left to leave with a warning never to come back.

Nothing, I think, has been so simultaneously beautiful and violent as this, so lulling and distressing, so dark and remorseless, but so seductive and compelling. They don't make movies like this these days, this brutal, this gritty.

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