In Deliverance, four male friends embark on a canoe trip down a dying river. Lewis, Ed, Bobby and Drew are looking for a relaxing few days on the river, but when Ed and Bobby are viciously assaulted by two backcountry hillbilly-types, Lewis comes to their aid, shooting one with an arrow while the other escapes.
Rather than becoming a horror/torture-fest, the movie slows back down. The men debate what to do with the body. Lewis, the clear group leader, says they must hide the body or else risk facing an unfair trial in which the jury will be full of the dead man’s friends and family, and they will surely be convicted. Against some of Drew’s protests, they bury the body.
Soon after, Drew is apparently shot and falls into the water. The three remaining men encounter rough rapids, destroying one of their two canoes and breaking Lewis’ leg. Forced to take charge, Ed climbs a large cliff where he encounters and kills the friend of the dead man who looked to be hunting them. In the process Ed partially impales himself on his own arrow, making sure all four men have been physically hurt in some way.
The last act of the film deals with the aftermath of their actions, off of the river. They make up their own story about what to tell the police, and despite some doubt, they are told to get out of town to “let our town die in peace.”
The movie ends with Ed, the default group leader in the end, waking up from a nightmare, imagining the body of the man he killed rising from the river water.
When I first sat down to watch this movie, I anticipated it would be more of a horror film. I imagined the four men would be tortured or at least tormented and teased by a group or town of inbred hillbillies. It felt like it was going to be a typical horror film.
Instead, this movie is slowly-paced and it spends more time with the characters working through tough decisions. Whereas most horror films have simpler characters reacting to troubling circumstances, this film deals more with the actual people involved. They spend much more time deliberating than moving.
The scene in which the two villainous townsfolk assault Bobby and Ed is long and suspenseful. The scene after Lewis kills one of the men, however, feels like it’s even longer. They argue about what the smart move is and the dead body lingers in the foreground throughout most of the shots. The danger has been dealt with rather quickly, and it now becomes a more personal drama, highlighting the differences in each character’s thought process.
In many horror movies, the “horror” is from the gruesome events onscreen. In Deliverance, the horror comes more from the way the characters react to and are affected by what they’ve encountered. It feels very human and honest. For example, were I to be in a group that killed a man (however evil), I wouldn’t immediately know what to do with the body.
I expected them to dump the body and get away as fast as they could, but the real story is within each character, and how the events affect their psyche.
It’s for that reason that the true climax of the film deals with them covering up their own story and evading the law. When Ed visits Lewis in the hospital, he nervously tries to get Lewis to remember the story they agreed upon, and Lewis plays dumb, saying he can’t remember anything substantive. It’s a calculated move ensuring that the nearby cop can hear this and thus has no hard evidence on which to charge the men. The real question of the film is “will the men get away with what they’ve done?” and not with what’s been done to them.
Similarly, Ed’s nightmare of the body rising out of the river shows just how tortured he still is by what he had to do. In an effort to survive, these characters are pushed to extreme limits.
Just as the river they travel down is soon to be erased by the construction of a large dam, the surviving friends lose all of their preconceived notions and ideas of right and wrong in order to survive. In fact, the person who objected the most to hiding the first dead body, Drew, is the only one to not survive the river. The other three realize the same rules don’t apply here.
If I ever go camping or, god forbid, river rafting, I will probably forget to buy something at REI but I will not forget to make all my friends watch this truly illuminating nature-survival instructional film.
Up Next: Bananas (1971), The Black Dahlia (2006), Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)