Squealin' like a pig. Toothless mountain pointing out a real purty mouth. Slowly plucked banjo strings that still run through my mind whenever I'm trudging through the boondocks of the Deep South. Very few movies have cemented themselves into the public consciousness the way Deliverance has over the past thirty-five years, but there's more to this lean, thrilling, and incredibly tense trip down a dying Georgia river than just a few pop culture touchstones.
Deliverance picks up as an Atlanta power company is building a dam to flood the Cahulawassee River, wiping out the slew of sleepy little towns that surround it. Four business men from the city -- played by Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox -- decide they might as well set out on a canoeing trip to careen down the river's punishing rapids while they still can. It'd be an arduous journey even if their trip had gone entirely according to plan, but a quick stop to catch their breath pits two of them against a pair of devastatingly cruel hillbillies. Not spurred on by any motivation but pure savagery, the mountain men force one of these city boys to endure one of the most humiliating, thoroughly degrading experiences imaginable, in the process inspiring some of the most memorable lines of dialogue caught on film in the past forty years. These men from the city are caught hopelessly out of their element, and their retaliation and the incredibly difficult choices they have to make put them in mortal danger as they're trapped in the gorges carved into the remote Georgia landscape.
Deliverance was among the first of a number of films to feature several chest-puffing city boys squaring off in the middle of nowhere against unwashed, backwater hillbillies throughout the '70s, but John Boorman's film has more depth than just an early version of The Hills Have Eyes set in the Deep South. Boorman uses the struggle as a metaphor: these remote, unspoiled lands are on the verge of being decimated by interlopers from the big city...by a faceless conglomorate with its eye squarely on the bottom line of its balance sheets. The four thrillseekers from Atlanta may not have anything to do with the dam themselves, but to these simple backwater folk, they represent this invasion from the city just the same. Just as the power company is twisting and transforming these lands beyond all recognition, the river and its people do the same to these four men. The only way to survive is to become as primal and feral as nature itself.
Boorman exercises a remarkable amount of restraint throughout the movie. There isn't a score in the traditional sense, just some occasional strains of "Dueling Banjos". Deliverance's most disturbing scenes aren't accompanied by any music at all, and hearing those anguished grunts with nothing but lapping water and chirping crickets in the background makes it that much more real...that much more unsettling. The storytelling doesn't build to the usual climactic crescendo, and Boorman keeps the film going a good fifteen minutes after most directors would've had the end credits start their upward crawl. It's a bold choice and ultimately the correct one; none of these men escape unscathed, suffering the sort of trauma that haunts a man for the rest of his days. Abandoning them too early is a disservice to these characters and really betrays the entire intent of the film.
So many of Deliverance's actors would go onto become households names, but Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, and Ned Beatty were virtual unknowns in 1972. Each of them contribute believable, natural performances, and having spent close to thirty years in South Carolina, even I didn't find myself wincing at their stabs at Southern-fried accents. John Boorman's sure-handed direction almost certainly helped them along, and Deliverance continues to stand out as one of his strongest films. Boorman deftly builds a sense of dread, preferring to make both the audience and the film's characters uneasy...as if something's not quite right...rather than pile on overdramatic stings to the score, barrel drums of blood, or a sprawling body count. Boorman furthers that sense of discomfort with his clever placement of the camera. The photography often has a detached, menacing quality, as if the camera is lurking in the shadows, laying in wait and skulking silently. It's almost ironic that these men are in such an unspoiled, open expanse -- many, many miles from any trace of civilization -- and yet there's an inescapable sense of claustrophobia.
Deliverance has aged remarkably well over the thirty five years since it first bowed into theaters. It's a film that remains tense, thrilling, thoughtful, and disturbing, crafted with just enough restraint to prevent it from spilling over the top. This anniversary edition boasts a new high definition transfer, an audio commentary with director John Boorman, and an hour long, four part documentary featuring all of the key talent from the cast and crew.
Video: Admittedly, Deliverance isn't exactly high definition eye candy. Vilmos Zsigmond's photography is soft, the scope frame is at times swarming with film grain, contrast has been largely flattened out, and its palette is deliberately subdued and overcast. This is just the way Deliverance looks; viewers purely interested in showing off their home theater rigs are sure to grouse, but those who are more concerned about their films being presented at the highest quality possible should walk away pleased.
The 1080p video isn't especially sharp or detailed, but there's a clarity that far outstrips anything DVD is capable of producing. The presence of film grain doesn't pose much of a challenge to the VC-1 encoding, and aside from one stray hair that got caught in the gate, the image is consistently clean and clear throughout. Some stretches do look fairly awful, particularly anything in low light and that terrible day-for-night tint to one of Jon Voight's more harrowing scenes, but that's owed to the original production rather than anything specific to this transfer. Deliverance may not be the most instantly arresting high-def presentation on the format, but it's a solid transfer of the film, and I don't have any qualms with the effort that Warner has put into this release.
Audio: I'd imagine that this Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix doesn't stray too far from the original sound design. There's some light directionality as sounds slide across the front channels, and the surrounds flesh out their trip down this remote river: lapping water, the propulsive rush of the rapids, incessantly chirping insects, and the creaking of aging trees in the forest. The mix makes very sparse use of the lower frequencies, rarely summoning much of a belch from the subwoofer, and although more modern movies would almost certainly crank the roaring river up in the mix until it was almost deafening, Deliverance keeps the sound of the water fairly subdued even in its most violent scenes. The film's dialogue has an unavoidably dated quality to it, but all of the line readings are still intelligible. Nothing remarkable but certainly good enough.
A French dub is also included alongside subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Extras: This HD DVD release of Deliverance includes the same set of extras as the DVD anniversary edition. Aside from an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer, all of them are offered in standard definition at the boxy aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The centerpiece of the disc is a four-part documentary that clocks in at nearly an hour in total. All four of Deliverance's leads -- Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox -- contribute their thoughts, joined by director John Boorman, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, 'mountain man' Bill McKinney, and Christopher Dickey, the son of late author and screenwriter James Dickey. "The Beginning" charts the early stages of production, focusing most heavily on Boorman's assembly of a cast of then-unknowns and how they all dealt with Dickey's overbearing personality on the set. "The Journey" picks up as cameras first started roll, pulling back the curtain on young Billy Redden's seemingly virtuostic fretwork on the banjo, lining up the perfect river for filming, and the relationships between these characters. "Betraying the River" delves into the "squeal!" sequence and its grisly aftermath, from the casting of the mountain men to the unexpected origin of the film's most iconic lines to the unique talents a couple of the actors brought to their characters' deaths. Finally, "Delivered" looks at the final days of the shoot, the struggles with the censors over some of the lingering glimpses of violence, and Deliverance's enormous critical and commercial success. The documentary's both comprehensive and teeming with personality, and I really enjoyed hearing some of the stories they lob out.
A lot of that same material is covered again in John Boorman's audio commentary, but the director has such a charming presence that I didn't mind hearing these notes a second time. It's an even more thorough examination of the film, touching on his intense dislike for CGI and his disinterest in using stunt men, his push to market "Dueling Banjos" as a single against the record label's advice, how Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight's vastly different acting techniques sparked some healthy competition and improved each other's performances, why Deliverance doesn't come to a close at the expected dramatic point, and how one of its final shots was informed by the Excalibur myth.
Warner's also included the charmingly dated vintage featurette "The Dangerous World of Deliverance". Running just over ten minutes in length, the featurette spends a good bit of time on the themes of the original story and on author/screenwriter James Dickey. This is a promotional piece, so it naturally points out the constant danger the cast braved throughout the shoot and tosses in plenty of clips from the movie. It's corny and hopelessly dated, but that's kind of the appeal.
Conclusion: More than thirty years later, Deliverance remains one of the seminal man versus wild films, with its lean, focused storytelling, its moral of the mutual distortion inevitable when nature and urban life collide, and a set of strong, natural performances ensuring that it's still powerful and relevant today. The presentation of the video and audio aren't outstanding but suit the intended look of the film well, and the disc's extras are more insightful than usual. Highly Recommended.