This review was originally written for French Toast Sunday as part of my USA Road Trip series.
In a few months time, the Cahulawassee River is to be flooded by a dam. Four men, only two of whom have any experience canoeing, set out to row down a stretch of the river, before it is tamed by man and gone forever. However, the river has other ideas, as do the locals who don’t think too much of these naive city folk heading down their river.
“What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?” a local man asks Burt Reynolds’ Lewis, the most experienced and adrenaline-hungry of the four intrepid adventurers. “Because it’s there,” is his response, a statement that should be carved in stone as a monument to man’s hubris and underestimation of nature and the dangers at its fingertips. This river trip was Lewis’ idea, but other than a rough start and end point, and an implausible arrangement of two unknown men driving the guys’ cars from one place to the other during the trip, that’s all the planning Lewis has done. The route is unclear. The dangers unknown. Yet so great is his pride and the faith in his own abilities that he cannot fathom the notion that a river could defeat him.
Accompanying Lewis is his friend and regular adventure companion Ed, played by Jon Voight. Ed has everything Lewis doesn’t – a steady office job, a wife and kid in their presumably idyllic suburban home, yet Ed feels the need to release some tension now and then and indulge his adventurous side. Along for the ride are two of Ed’s friends, the portly and bumbling Bobby (Ned Beatty) and the amiable, guitar-playing Drew (Ronny Cox), both of whom are unbelievably in their feature film debuts, yet are really, really good. Their characters are well established early on, though in part this is helped by a tight script and the direction of John Boorman.
There’s a few iconic scenes from Deliverance that have expanded beyond the film and into popular culture. Ask people where the line “Squeal like a pig” comes from, and I’d reckon a fair few wouldn’t even know Deliverance existed. Just as infamous is the early Duelling Banjos scene. When the guys stop at a gas station for fuel and information, Drew starts idly picking away at his guitar, until a boy with a banjo plays along with him, and the two compete through acoustics, until Drew ultimately loses, announcing “I’m lost.” How right he is. It’s a terrific example of foreshadowing, with one of the men unwittingly entering into a battle he confidently thinks he can handle, against an opponent he initially deems lesser than himself, but which gets out of his control far sooner than anyone anticipated. It’s also the scene that establishes all the guys’ characters. Bobby is brash and rude, mocking the locals in a condescending way. Drew on the other hand is kinder and more understanding, treating the mountain men with respect. Lewis has a similar approach to Bobby, but with a greater focus on the main goal, rowing down the river, whilst Ed is just along for the ride and doesn’t want any trouble.
The success of this film is at least in part due to the performances of these lead four. Ned Beatty in particular is great, and has to go through perhaps the most diverse of emotions amongst the guys. He’s confident and boorish at times, but is also belittled and insulted almost constantly by Lewis, who calls him “Tubby”. At the first set of rapids they encounter on the journey there’s a very real, very believable look of panic and a flailing of his arms that makes me wonder just how much he’s really acting here. Elsewhere, after a particularly traumatic experience, Beatty imbues Bobby with confusion and an inability to fully comprehend what he has been through, or how he should be reacting to it, in a way that makes a great deal of sense. Ronny Cox too is good as Drew, again adding some realism to a role that is essentially the audience’s cipher, making what happens to him all the more dramatic and impactful to the viewer.
If there’s any downside, it’s the less than pleasant depiction of the locals who live along the river. Other than a small group at the end of the film, none of them are painted in anything close to a positive light. Granted, this is because the ones we encounter the most are the closest the film has to villains, but if I lived in Georgia, I’d probably be offended by the lack of teeth and the predilection for anal rape. That’s a small problem though, given how well made the rest of the film is. It’s very well staged too, particularly in a scene involving a dead body. The body is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, obviously, and remains in the foreground for most of the scene, regardless of the camera placement.
All in all, I highly recommend this film. It’s tense, well made and poses some intriguing what-would-you-do scenarios, for which almost every one I’d answer “Drown.”
Choose Film 9/10
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