John Boorman’s Deliverance, based on James Dickey’s screenplay adaptation of his own novel, has been quoted, cited, invoked, and parodied more than almost any other film in the 40 years since it was released, but, strange as it might sound, it’s practically an unknown quantity, apart from a few, isolated scenes of notoriety—and even those are scarcely remembered just as they were. This distinguishes it from that same year’s The Godfather, the most minute details of which three or more generations of fans have devoutly committed to memory, like a favorite book in the Bible.
Deliverance is the kind of classic where the subtext is the text: unspeakable horror derived from the same energies exerted to keep it suppressed. Four “regular guys” from civilized, Middle America take to the untamed Cahulawassee River in northern Georgia, but only three return, none unchanged by their terrible, unforeseen ordeal. Boorman’s fifth feature keeps its thesis statement about the inadequacy of so-called “civilization” out in front at all times, but not in a way that badgers the audience. Rather, he presents the quartet’s fatal hubris as an assumed truth, thus allowing him to pull off a kind of storytelling miracle in plain sight: Despite the fact that the narrative spans several weeks, possibly months, it all feels like it’s happening in real time, even in slow motion. This is especially true during the midsection, when the river journey turns, in an imperceptible, untrackable moment, into a maddening nightmare.
Following their ordeal, Dickey’s moral calculus—perhaps deliberately—fails to add up, strongly suggesting that the element of chaos has the final word. The sarcastically arrogant character (Ned Beatty’s Bobby), the one who practically asks to be annihilated by his brush with America primeval, remains, in the end, the sole emotional and physical survivor (he’s practically a barometer for sanity and restorative calm). The best-equipped, most self-sufficient member of the party (Burt Reynolds’s Lewis), on the other hand, is utterly destroyed—as is the kindest and most moral (Ronny Cox’s Drew), and, perhaps, the classical hero (Jon Voight’s Ed), the one who shepherds the survivors.
Are Lewis, Ed, Bobby, and Drew punished for their sins—their legal and moral transgressions alike, their unearned arrogance? The short answer is, yes, they are. But Boorman seems to recognize that this fable-like prescript may be grossly superficial, but it’s structurally sound enough to leave him alone to develop the narrative by manipulating the audience’s basest empathetic reactions, from the choking, slow-nightmare miasma of the sodomy scene, to the vacant—and, indeed, false—heroism of Ed’s cliff-face expedition. For a film that’s laden with time-tested “man versus nature” symbolism, the real film is located not in a lecture, but in Boorman’s quasi-Hitchcockian turning of the screws.
Hungarian émigré Vilmos Zsigmond is now seen as one of the key figures in 1970s cinematography, but his astonishing balancing act for Deliverance, enshrouding the story's locations in a dreamy mist while simultaneously respecting their irreducible physicality and lived-in-ness, went unnoticed during the 1972 awards season. Warner Home Video's 1080p transfer of the film preserves the haunting, mythic quality of Zsigmond's work, as well as some of the riskier business, i.e. the questionable-looking (but unavoidable) "day for night" process that was used to film Ed's nocturnal cliff-scaling. The film's rich and complex sound mix, which often plays its own part in humiliating the presumptuous quartet (they're not even the masters of their own sound field), is presented in a robust DTS-HD 5.1 English track.
The commentary track (by John Boorman) and the lengthy, in-depth featurettes are, of course, essential viewing for any Deliverance fans, but the one coup on Warner's disc is the roundtable of reminiscences with each of the four stars, which was produced in the event of the film's 40th anniversary. You have to overlook how unwell Burt Reynolds seems, and maybe forgive the over-eager
Vilos Cohaagen Ronny Cox for trying to bogart the conversation one too many times (heck, it's worth watching just to contemplate the miracle of getting these four guys in the same room at the same time, after all these years).
The moral of Deliverance seems to be "Don’t go anywhere, ever, just stay indoors, trust me, it isn’t worth it." Luckily, with Warner’s top-notch Blu-ray release, you can enjoy John Boorman’s classic tale of arrogance, sodomy, and revenge, all without leaving the comfort of your living room.