"Chromium… paper tissues… It's nice," Jon Voight tells some hospital attendants near the end of 1972's Deliverance. He's rambling, but there's sense beneath the incoherence. Coming out of a back-to-nature weekend gone horribly awry, he must find any signs of human society comforting, even though getting away from all that comfort was the whole idea.
Voight is one of four men who set out on the weekend, and one of the three who make it home. They're all the product of white-collar Atlanta, but in spite of their common background, they have widely different dispositions. Ned Beatty has a softness that befits his girth. Ronny Cox's gentle, bespectacled guitar-playing character wants only to pick and grin. The most forceful personality belongs to Burt Reynolds, a man whose confidence and machismo are shored up by expensive hunting equipment and a lot of tough talk. But talk, they all discover, only goes so far.
Adapted from a novel by James Dickey, Deliverance is a film about finding the place where ideas mean less than instinct. In the least violent of the film's iconic scenes, Cox launches into a spirited guitar-vs.-banjo duet with a malformed teenage boy. Both appear delighted with the musical connection they make, but that connection ends with the last note. Cox is a tourist who only thinks he's found a new home. Such moments only intensify as their journey progresses, the river grows more challenging, and the locals become less hospitable.
Working from a screenplay by Dickey, Boorman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond play the parts of patient observers as Voight and his friends are forced to adapt, or maybe devolve, to fit their new surroundings. Their adversaries are human, but they seem more like extensions of the mud and foliage than anything resembling civilization. It's a tale of humanity vs. nature in which one side can only win by surrendering to the other. The construction of a dam destined to strip this piece of wilderness away forever spurs the trip on and leads Reynolds to exclaim, "They're drowning the river." But nothing, the film keeps suggesting, can stay submerged forever.
Key features: Boorman delivers a frank commentary, and some making-of pieces reveal just how much real danger dogged the shoot.