Deliverance is a film I learnt about during my youth as a film which was uniquely confronting. Although my friends and I would quote some of the lines or imitate the sound of a banjo to each other with a certain degree of humour, it always had a certain mystique of taboo for me in how it would approach sexual assault. I’d avoided watching it but when I was given the opportunity to go see it on the big screen, I decided it was time to finally give the piece a watch and find out how I would fair with it.
With all that in mind, I grabbed my compound bow and headed down to George Street Cinemas for their In the House screening of Deliverance. Was it worth the notoriety I ascribed it in my youth? Read on and find out.
A group of four friends decide to embark on a canoe trip together down a remote Georgia river in order to enjoy the wilderness before it’s flooded by the building of a dam. The party’s led by experienced outdoorsmen Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) and Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) who are bringing along newbies Bobby Trippe and Drew Ballinger. The group get their first taste of danger canoeing down the river when navigating the white water rapids of the river but they are able to overcome them. Things take a turn for the worse when two mountain men take Ed and Bobby hostage. What follows will change their lives forever as they deal with the fallout of cruelty inflicted upon them and wrestle with their own humanity.
There’s not too much I can say about the film’s script in that there really isn’t much dialogue to examined in the first place. The screenplay does explore questions of nature versus civilisation, survivalism and the nature of man in the first act but it largely gets overshadowed by the action of the second and third acts. It is an interesting form of storytelling which focuses on showing us the true nature of our protagonists through their actions which directly undermines and is in conflict with some elements of their dialogue. It’s nice to see that contrast between what a character says they believe and how they’ll actually behave when things get to the crunch.
One thing I was a bit unsure about was the film’s unusual pacing. There is a lot of negative space in the film which works to heighten the tension really well but it can occasionally drag out a bit too long. The action can be quite fast and energetic but there are also periods where it’s an extended sequences such as when Ed is climbing a cliff over an afternoon and evening. The sequence is long but the shots vary in length so that you really get a sense of exhaustion with the accomplishment… but this can also be alienating. If the action isn’t drawing you in for these sequences, you’re going to feel quite alienated.
Where this gets particularly pronounced is in the infamous sexual assault scene that has earned this film its infamy. The way the scene is shot and directed gives a particular degree of raw brutality to the act even if a significant amount of it isn’t actually depicted on the screen. My companion for the screening commented on how understated the scene was and how with restrained visual direction and no music which ends up making the sequence even more confronting. The naturalistic style really sells the reality of the scene and with little to break you away from it, there’s nowhere to escape as you sit and face it. If this subject matter is something you would have difficulty with, I cannot recommend seeing this film at all.
The big draw for the film was the breathtaking cinematography which showcases the North American wilderness with clear love and awe. There’s a lot of wide shots of the rugged wilderness which really gives a sense of the vast (relatively) untouched wilderness that our protagonists travel through. It’s shot in a naturalistic style to convey the beauty of this part of the United States. There are some sequences where the film plays with colour grading to the extent that it almost appears surreal to see such bright colours on the screen in juxtaposition to everything else but otherwise it’s all played fairly straight; no tricks or flashy special effects.
The only piece of non-diegetic music that played during select moments throughout the film was a refrain from the duelling banjos piece at the start of the film. This reinforces the strong naturalistic tone for most of the film where the only things that exist in the soundscape are tied to what you can see on the screen. This isn’t to say that the film is silent with the sound of moving water being an almost constant throughout the runtime; it’s just that there isn’t any music in the background directing you in how you should react to what’s on screen. This has a strangely unsettling effect as you end up with nothing in the experience giving you a reprieve from the action.
Overall, I did enjoy my time with this film and am glad to have seen it on the big screen. The script is limited in dialogue but rich in characterisation and juxtaposition while also not holding back any punches when dealing with the subject of sexual assault. The visuals are largely naturalistic in tone for realism’s sake but do play with a surrealist colour palette. The film’s soundscape is largely devoid of any non-diegetic music which works to keep you squarely in the film’s grip. This is a confronting experience to say the least and although I appreciate that I have seen it, I doubt any or many of you would be interested in revisiting it for multiple viewings. I’d recommend it for anyone who’s interested but warn that it’s not an experience for the faint of heart.
For other films which In The House is screening, feel free to check out their schedule for the next season here.
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