River of Doubt

Deliverance: adapted by James Dickey and John Boorman from the novel by Dickey; directed by John Boorman; starring Jon Voight (Ed), Burt Reynolds (Lewis), Ned Beatty (Bobby), and Ronny Cox (Drew) (1972): James Dickey and John Boorman’s nightmarish canoe trip continues to resonate more than 40 years later as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. It evokes horror in the white-water expanses of the river the four unfortunate Atlanta men canoe upon, and in the claustrophobic nooks and crannies of the forests and cliffs that surround that river. Through these spaces move men who are comfortable within them, and men who are assuredly not.

The acting of the four primaries is superb, with a charismatic turn by Burt Reynolds as the only outdoorsman among the four, and with nervous, overwhelmed performances by new-to-the-screen Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. As the conflicted protagonist (“Now you get to be the hero,” one injured character mumbles), Jon Voight is smart and emotionally overwhelmed. It’s as raw and varied a performance as his great work in Midnight Cowboy.

I suppose there are obvious subtexts to be mentioned, most notably the idea that this screwed-up, violent misadventure in the Great Outdoors can stand in for America’s contemporaneous follies in Viet Nam. The movie rewards such interpretations because it is wholly itself in its horrors — at no point are we asked to believe that this is a story about anything other than four city slickers on a vacation gone bad.

The horrors include grievous bodily injury and rape and murder, all framed within the context of an increasingly hostile natural world that hints at the supernatural. The human antagonists could just as well be orcs or some of Lovecraft’s inbred human monsters. But they have ties to the world outside, and because of that, the authorities can’t be trusted, at least not anywhere near the river. These monsters have suspicious, angry relatives.

The return to civilization is signalled by a rusting vehicle. A taxi gets delayed by a church being transported away from the soon-to-be-inundated banks of the river, which is being turned into a lake. For the surviving characters, there will be nightmares and guilt and at least some doubt as to what actually killed one of their number — and, perhaps, a dead and bloated hand rising from the water. Highly recommended.

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