The instant we see the four cocksure principal characters encounter other people, we feel uneasy. We feel uneasy before they do, their urban veneer of arrogance and naïveté insulating them from any sense of threat. By now, we cynical cinéastes know this isn’t the first time some urbanites looking for a thrill have got more than they bargained for after bumping into some local rednecks.
The plot is difficult to relate without dropping spoilers; suffice to say, said urbanites go on a canoeing trip down the (fictional) Cahulawassee, find themselves at the mercy of the locals and the river, and descend into psychological turmoil. This sort of premise has become hackneyed now, but in 1972, it was still pretty fresh; Deliverance even preceded Tobe Hooper’s seminal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. John Boorman’s film has been much emulated, but never – or perhaps rarely – bettered, thanks partly to James Dickey’s screenplay, based on his own novel. The four leads (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) are flawed, but ultimately likeable; the decisions they make lead to tragedy, but largely because they are the victims of forces far greater than themselves. These decisions are sometimes risky, but never risible or ridiculous like those made by victims in countless slasher/stalker films. Because Boorman’s characters have at least a modicum of intelligence, we care about them, and find their fates genuinely disturbing.
Deliverance is rich thematically and conceptually. It is primarily concerned with the loss of innocence; it also has to do with risk and responsibility, challenge and camaraderie. It brutally demonstrates how attempting to overcome the natural world can strip you of everything you have. Its main weakness is how it deals with the urban/rural dichotomy: the various local yokels are uniformly ugly, aggressive inbreds with a propensity for needlessly threatening fresh townies. However, it is these yokels that effectively fill the film’s atmosphere with dread. This is complemented by the score, which is comprised purely of guitar and banjo. In one strange, unsettling scene near the beginning, Ronny Cox’s character plucks on his guitar, to find his notes banjo-ed back to him by a creepy, genetically deformed boy on a balcony. The playing grows increasingly curious, tense and electric, until the boy’s playing explodes into an effervescent assault of notes, slung with palpable menace. This is the film’s only diegetic music, but all the extra-diegetic music is supplied by the same two instruments, lending Deliverance the realism that makes it so successful. Cinema is often most effective when you forget it’s cinema, and the film’s sparse soundtrack gives credence to this maxim.
Since I am not a religious person, I am sure there are some religious references that I missed. However, two references are obvious, the first one being the title. The four leads seem to be delivered into evil, and the last two-thirds of the film is a process of deliverance out of it. It is important that they are delivered; they are not deliverers. They are under the illusion that they have a significant degree of agency, an illusion that gives their plight a real sense of pathos. Nature and fate have other plans for them after they cross the treacherous rapids of the Cahulawassee. The second religious reference is a church at the end, emblazoned with the words “Church of Christ”, ostensibly symbolic of the fact that they have been delivered from immediate evil. But their minds and souls will never be delivered from the evil they have witnessed.
Deliverance was shot on the Chattooga River, Georgia; the cinematography is beautiful, and the film as a whole evokes Herzog, specifically Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes, which was made at the same time. The more beautiful the scenery, the more heightened the sense of horror we feel at witnessing the depths and desperation of the human soul. Boorman captures this desperation with more skill, tension, complexity and empathy than have most directors.