One of the most brutal and uncompromising films of the '70s, 'Deliverance' almost single-handedly terrified a generation into never going camping again, and remains one of the most perceptive and disturbing explorations of man's propensity for violence. That it continues to wield such influence -- even forty years after its original release -- is testament to the film's ability to simultaneously deliver mainstream action-movie thrills while exploring complex human truths with subtlety and intelligence.
Based on James Dickey's 1970 bestseller, at first glance the story is deceptively simple. Four "weekend warriors" set out on a white water rafting expedition in a wild area of the deep south -- one soon set for demolition as part of a major corporate urban expansion project. The four men are each representative of a different American male archtype: there's Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the hunter-gather all filled with blustery confidence; Bobby (Ned Beatty), the flabby number-cruncher and weakling of the group; Drew (Ronny Cox), the pacifist; and Ed (Jon Voight), the de facto protagonist who, though he too has lost the human imperative for survival (being a "civilized" man), will ultimately rise to the occasion.
The river that these four men will attempt to tame -- the one that is soon to be lost to the capitalist urges of the culture -- serves as the backdrop for the majority of the action in 'Deliverance,' and is the metaphor at the heart of its themes. Like any "jungle" outside of the urban one, these waters (and the perversions of nature they spawn) don't have patience for arrogance or the social structure of the world outside their own Darwinian universe. The four men will have no choice but to swallow this hard truth, and some will die because of it.
The centerpiece of 'Deliverance' is undoubtedly its most infamous scene -- the one that had grown men rushing for the exit signs during the film's original theatrical release. The words "Squeal like a pig!" have since become a cultural shorthand for the ultimate violation, and what the back of the Blu-ray box coyly describes as "the abduction scene" is actually one of the most disturbing and unflinching depictions of rape ever committed to celluloid. When the group stumbles upon two local, in-bred mountain men with more on their mind than just banjo playin', the balance of power will do more than just irrevocably shift. Mirroring the group's physical struggles on the rapids, all of the learned behaviors of these "civilized" men will crumble in the face of the savagery that emerges from within, when the only decision left to make is how to stay alive. If nothing else, 'Deliverance' should prove to all that rape is a crime of power, not sex -- and regardless of sex.
The scene is also so powerful and illuminating because it is just as much about humiliation, as it is about cutting us "know-it-all" civilized city folk down to size. 'Deliverance' is expert at deconstructing man's often callous and ignorant attitudes towards its own kind (watch how the four men condescend to and mock the "locals" at the film's beginning), as well as our ecosystem. Many have called 'Deliverance' a film about the "revenge of Mother Nature," and while that may be bit simplistic, it certainly is a movie that methodically and precisely exploits our worst fears about journeying into areas where we know we are not supposed to trespass. The amorous "mountain men" represent our worst fears about our own uncivilized shadow selves. It is impossible to watch 'Deliverance' and not hear the faint strains of "Dueling Banjos" the next time you make a wrong turn onto that isolated dirt road...
A true zeitgeist film, 'Deliverance' was an unexpected box office smash and one of the biggest blockbusters of the early '70s. Though some critics were initially put off by the rape scene as well as the film's unblinking focus on man's darkest, most violent impulses, the film went on to nab three Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and has since earned classic status. Justifiably so, for it remains as taut, thought-provoking and utterly vital forty years on. In fact, 'Deliverance' may be even more prescient now than it has been in years. For those that may think 'Deliverance' is dated, remember that though the film was made at a time when the fires of Vietnam were just beginning to burn down, while here we are three decades later, witnessing yet another American intrusion into the more "primitive" culture of Iraq. Watching 'Deliverance' again, I couldn't help but think that we still haven't learned our lesson.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
First released on Blu-ray back in 2007 for its 35th anniversary, Warner Bros. presents this new 40th anniversary edition on a BD-50 disc that's housed in an attractive digibook case. The 46-page book includes lots of information on the film's production, casting, and famous banjo theme with great color photos and numerous quotes from the cast and crew. Thankfully not just a lazy repackaging, this new release also features an additional cast retrospective and an upgraded lossless audio mix. After some logos and warnings, the disc transitions to a fairly bland but functional static menu.
This appears to be the exact same 1080p/VC-1 transfer from the previous release. Here's what Peter M. Bracke had to say about the video in his original review:
Warner originally released 'Deliverance' on standard-def DVD back in the late '90s, and while it was a decent enough transfer, this new remaster -- freshly minted for the film's 35th anniversary -- is a noticeable improvement. The film does not totally belie its age, but I suspect there is little chance 'Deliverance' could look much better than this.
As director John Boorman and director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond explain in the included supplements, they intentionally shot 'Deliverance' in a desaturated, soft style, and it certainly looks it -- don't expect a presentation that's ultra sharp, colorful or high-contrast. Grain is pretty prevalent, too, though the print (while not pristine) is generally clean and free of dirt and speckles. Dark scenes fare the worst, with shadow delineation that's pretty weak at times and blacks that can look faded in certain shots.
On the plus side, daytime exteriors can look great. Colors brighten up, especially fleshtones. Depth improves noticeably, and the detail verges on the lush, with even longshots nicely textured. Only close-ups come near to delivering the kind of high-def we're generally accustomed to these days, but still, compared to all past video versions (especially the horrid pan & scan VHS copies that were available for years), 'Deliverance' has never looked better.
Audio fans rejoice! Perhaps learning from their recent blunder on the 'Unforgiven: 20th Anniversary Edition,' Warner has wisely decided to replace the previous Blu-ray's lossy mix with a new DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless track. While I don't have the previous disc to make direct comparisons to, the audio comes across well with some solid design work and no major technical issues.
Dialogue is mostly clean, but there are a few fleeting instances where speech sounds a bit muffed or gets swallowed up by background effects. Surround use is subtle, but faint environmental ambiance does hit the rear speakers with chirping birds, crickets, rustling winds, and splashing waters, adding an occasional sense of immersion. Characters' voices are spread out directionally when appropriate and a few audio pans featuring passing cars are smooth and natural. Dynamic range is distortion free and while not as wide as contemporary releases, the track offers clean highs and decent bass response. Low end activity is never exactly room shaking or terribly aggressive, but bass kicks in nicely during an early explosion and adds some subtle but effective punch to the raging river waters and crashing rapids.
While it can't compete with modern mixes, 'Deliverance' sounds pretty good with a respectful 5.1 mix that carries a restrained but pleasing sense of immersion. Warner Bros. has seemingly learned from their past mistakes, and this new lossless audio presentation is sure to satisfy fans.
Warner Brothers has ported over all the same special features from the previous release and has included one all-new retrospective with the cast. The new featurette is provided in 1080p but all of the returning supplements are presented in standard definition. All of the extras feature Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and the same subtitle options as the main film.
Even after forty years, 'Deliverance' remains an unflinching, disturbing, and utterly compelling story of survival. This new release from Warner Brothers features the same solid video transfer from the previous Blu-ray and offers fans a very welcome lossless audio upgrade. In addition to all of the supplements from the last disc, we also get a new retrospective with the cast and a wonderful digibook package. For those that don't already own the film on Blu-ray this is definitely the release to get. Thankfully not just a mere repackaging, the new mix and featurette are very welcome inclusions. While most viewers who purchased the previous version will likely remain satisfied with that disc, audiophiles and big fans mulling over a double dip should definitely pull the trigger. Recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.