Early in John Boorman’s harrowing and savage film Deliverance, a character notes, rightly: “You don’t beat it. You don’t beat this river.”
How does he stuff the ugly truth back down, and go about facing a meaningless job, or living a life of polite domesticity with his wife and children?
The ultimate irony is that Ed needed his “dark side” to return to his family, but his dark side – now alive – has no place with that family. Suddenly, Ed belongs in neither the civilized world nor the savage one.
Thus Deliverance concerns a problem with our modern safe-and-secure lives. Once forcibly exiled from the Garden of Eden, can a man or woman ever be a fit citizen to return?
In Deliverance, Ed (Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) brave the roaring rapids of the Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia. They do so because the river will soon be gone: transformed into a placid lake by bulldozers and other instruments of man’s modern technology.
Drew wants to inform the police. But Lewis is convinced that the police will view them as outsiders, as automatically guilty. Over Drew’s objections, the group decides to bury the body and not inform the authorities of the conflict. Soon this river will be at the bottom of a lake, and no one will ever find out what happened…
|Nature gets raped too...|
How will they react?
Drew can’t adapt to a world without the artificial infrastructure that made and nurtured him, and so he dies. Drew’s skill set -- abstract thinking and an artistic bent (he’s a musician) -- don’t permit him to tap into his primitive self. He dies because he can’t access that crucial part of his nature. He won't put himself above the law -- symbolically refusing to put on his life jacket -- and so he dies.
By contrast, Lewis (Reynolds) is undeniably a representation of American swagger, arrogance and authority. He’s a macho man who believes that all life is risk, and who lords it over his friends about what a tough guy he is.
He’s not so tough, however, once badly injured. In fact, deprived of his physical acumen, Lewis becomes a whimpering suck-up to Ed, who has by then established his credibility as a capable man.
The message here is that overconfidence, vanity, and arrogance don’t survive in the wild, either. Nature doesn’t like excess, whether in terms of abstract thinking (like Drew) or in terms of reckless, over-the-top muscle-flexing (like Lewis). If Drew was all brain, Lewis is all muscle. Neither one strikes the necessary balance to survive the river experience intact.
Poor Bobby (Beatty) likely represents American cynicism…or flab. He depends on everybody else to carry his considerable weight on the river, rescued both by Lewis and then by Ed. Worse, he is condescending and cruel to the locals…simply because he can be. But this cruelty and anger are not supported by anything meaningful, as he soon learns.
He is the fat of our society, suddenly put in a situation where there’s nobody to protect him. And yes, the Mountain man’s designation of Bobby as a “pig” is probably inevitable. Bobby is the overstuffed, soft animal hat could only exist in a society of extreme comfort and leisure.
Finally, Ed (Voight) is the cherished Every Man -- a regular Joe -- an average family man who holds down a job and is a good father and husband. He has never really been forced to face too dangerous a situation, and therefore never had to reckon with his own, dark capabilities. But the events in the film force this Every Man to reckon with the seemingly placid surface and look underneath it.
Modern life has the same effect on both characters, in essence. the raging, dangerous river will be replaced by a serene – but dead – lake And Ed has lived a life as that tranquil lake, never understanding the forces roiling beneath it.
|You can't drown human nature. It will re-surface...|
And under the right circumstances, it will rear up again. Just like that hand – a representation of violence and conflict – could re-surface in the calm lake.
They greet the locals with disdain and disrespect, and with an air of superiority. They have the best tools (canoes), the comforts of home (a guitar), and an arrogant attitude. Despite Lewis’s unfamiliarity with the terrain, he attempts to race the local guides to the river, because, he just knows better. Once in alien territory, however, Lewis and the others realize they are outmatched, and that domination isn’t going to be as easy as they imagined.
This is one of those movies where you feel vulnerable just watching it; like you might be forced to see things you had never really consciously considered before.
|Who is looking down on whom?|
There’s too much suspicion, too much distrust to allow real communication or trust to occur on either side.
Therefore, this scene of would-be optimism instead emerges as one of further competition for dominance. And to see who is dominant, you need only look at Boorman's framing (above). Who is in the superior position here?
|Cause and effect: In the foreground, the face of death.|
In the background, animal instinct takes over.
But again, gaze at Boorman's choice in terms of composition. In the foreground: the face of death. In the background: the animal response to danger. It's a brilliant cause-and-effect image. It reminds us that when threatened, civilization slips away.
I submit the film adaptation is actually about learning to deal with the things you keep buried and locked away.
Once you let the beast out, it doesn't drown easy.
It's always there, threatening to surface again, like that hand reaching up from the lake...