Directed by Walter Hill who co-wrote with David Giler and Michael Kane, 1981's Southern Comfort takes place in Louisiana in 1973. Here, nine National Guardsmen are on a weekend training mission in the backwoods swamps. The trainees are comprised of Spencer (Keith Carradine), Hardin (Powers Boothe), Reece (Fred Ward), Simms (Franklyn Seales), Cribbs (T. K. Carter), Stuckey (Lewis Smith), Casper (Les Lannom), and Poole (Peter Coyote) and none of the men really anticipate any issues here, particularly as since they're training there's no live ammunition to worry about.
As they head deeper into the swamp, however, things quickly take a dangerous turn after they steal some canoes that belong to a tribe of local Cajuns, and those Cajuns retaliate. Soon enough, the soldiers are being hunted in the swamps by men who know the area far better than they and who have not only laid some clever traps, but who have loaded their firearms with live rounds. They draw first blood and Poole goes down, setting into action a manhunt of sorts that takes the troop deep into the heart of the swamp.
A ridiculously tense look at the lengths men will go to not only to survive but to outdo one another in conflict, Southern Comfort owes a nod to Boorman's Deliverance made almost ten years before but it is certainly its own cinematic beast. The film is often discussed as an allegory for American intervention in Vietnam and it's easy to see why as the soldier literally walk almost blindly into unfamiliar territory only to bump right into a hornet's nest of retaliation from the locals but it also succeeds as a simple backwoods thriller as well. Understandably, much of the tension comes from within the group of soldiers themselves. The whole thing really is set off by a misunderstanding, a joke turned bad, and as their situation becomes increasingly more hostile and therefore dangerous, their bad sides start to show. The bicker and they fight and they begin to mistrust one another, as humans are wont to do, but they know that in this particular environment that no matter how well trained they may have been by Uncle Sam, the locals have the upper hand. Breakdowns occur and the psychological affect that the Cajun attacks bring to the table are explored in interesting ways.
Much like Hill's best known film, The Warriors, the core of the story here follows a small group of men racing to get out of ‘enemy territory' while they still can. There's a race against time element here that keeps things tense while the film's sense of the unknown really works in its favor as well. The Cajuns are seen often more as shadowy figures than as clear cut men, they move quickly and don't need to jump up and get in the faces of their opponents, rather, they use stealth tactics here in much the same way they would were they hunting animals for food. The location photography here is excellent, the swamp almost becomes a character unto itself and as things go from bad to worse it all starts to feel extremely claustrophobic.
Smack dab in the middle of all of this are some great performances as well. Powers Boothe and Keith Carradine dominate the film as their characters have more dialogue than most of the other participants and they both deliver excellent work. The supporting players here are strong as well, however, with Fred Ward and Peter Coyote each turning in memorable work as soldiers and Brian Jameson and Sonny Landham both delivering eerily bizarre turns as their foes.
Southern Comfort arrives on Blu-ray framed at 1.78.1 widescreen (OAR was 1.85.1 but the framing looks fine here) in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Although some compression artifacts pop up throughout the movie (they seem to be more obvious in scenes where the grain looks a little heavier) and some noise creeps into the frame from time to time, detail is typically pretty solid here, especially in close up shots. Skin tones look lifelike and natural, never too pink or too orange, and black levels are pretty good as well. This movie has always had a sort of swampy tone to it, so expect a transfer that is heavy on Earth tones and not an image that really pops off of the screen in HD the way a more colorful film might, but this feels pretty true to source. Some shots do look softer than others but this looks more like the way that the movie was photographed than anything having to do with the authoring of the disc.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track but it sounds pretty good for the most part. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. Although the range is obviously limited here the track's depth is pretty decent and dialogue stays clean and clear throughout the movie. The score has nice balance and range to it and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion to note. Sound effects have pretty solid presence too, which helps add to the movie's uniquely sweaty, tense atmosphere in interesting ways.
The main extra on the disc is a twenty-seven minute long ‘making of' featurette that includes new interviews with Hill, producer/writer David Giler and cast members Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Peter Coyote and Lewis Smith. This is a pretty interesting look back at the making of the movie that not only offers up some interesting stories about what it was like working on the shoot but about the film's maybe/maybe not metaphorical take on America's involvement in the Vietnam war. Some of the film's themes and ideas are also discussed in enough detail to make this well worth sitting through. Outside of that we get a still gallery, a theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. As this is a combo pack release, a DVD version of the movie with identical extra features is also included inside the case.
Southern Comfort remains one of Walter Hill's best films, a gritty and tense thriller that mixes up action and backwoods horror in really effective ways. The cast shines and the location work and cinematography really help to build atmosphere and suspense while the director's steady hand controls the pacing to deliver a grim but exciting picture. Shout! Factory's transfer isn't perfect but it is decent and the audio is solid as is the featurette. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.