Sunday, August 05, 2007

Deliverance is more than just a guy getting raped by a hillbilly. It's about man versus nature. It's about survival. It's about self-preservation. It's about how we deal with traumatic events. But, yeah, it's also about a man getting ass-raped by a grinning redneck with a pig fetish…

All too often people see nature as something beautiful, something charming and wonderful. But what they overlook is the brutality and the unforgiving selfishness that comes with survival. In such an environment no concessions are made and weakness is cruelly exploited. And so it is with the characters in Deliverance.

Out of the four protagonists, Lewis (Reynolds) is the one who is best equipped to deal with the river. He knows he's playing a game and he knows the rules. Yet he's also the cause of his friend's later misery; it's his romantic worship of nature and his arrogance that gets them into trouble, because although he respects the river and although he understands it to some degree, by challenging it he exposes his less-equipped friends to nature's savagery. He may be testing himself, but he's testing his friends as well.

The three other characters, to varying degrees, are less capable than Lewis. But in true Darwinian fashion it's the weakest character, Drew (Cox), who succumbs. He's the most moral and the most humane, which in a game of pure survival renders him the most susceptible. He's just not up to the task. But although he's killed, it's never entirely clear how he dies. His death, like much of the film, is clouded in ambiguity. Lewis is sure that Drew is killed by gunshot, but you never hear gunfire and Ed (Voight) fails to find a clear bullet wound. Did he get shot? Did he faint and fall out of the canoe? Or did he die of a heart attack while under the immense stress that the characters are put under? You never know.

And you're never sure if the man that Ed kills on top of the mountain is indeed the toothless man. It certainly seems that way, as the man is missing his front teeth like the other guy, but you never get a clear look at him and the characters themselves aren't entirely sure. In a way it shows the hollowness of revenge, the way that it fails to satisfy and end our suffering, but it also shows our humanity. Unlike animals we're open to doubt and we're open to regret, and unlike animals we have to live with our actions. It's what makes us human. Ed certainly won't forget what he did. It will always be with him, promising to rise to the surface at any moment.

There's an excellent scene that illustrates Ed's pain. After surviving the river, he has to go back to something resembling a normal life and he has to eat dinner surrounded by the people who are looking after him. He breaks down. Now the reaction that follows may seem cruel – everyone looks at him, and after an awkward silence, begin talking and joking – but it's what he needs. It's what he needs to survive. And if anything, the scene shows that perhaps Bobby (Beatty), the man who was raped by the rednecks, is better equipped at surviving than Ed. He stays strong.

But I guess, in a way, you could say that the characters deserve what happens to them. At the beginning they treat the locals with a complete lack of respect. They treat them as sub-human – apart from Drew who is the one person who tries to relate to them. Therefore what happens could be perceived as a final piece of revenge against the people that are destroying the wilderness and people's homes (the town is being flooded to make way for a dam). It's a last hurrah. It's the (very) common man's final blow against corporate America.

In fact, watching the film back, it's interesting to note the way that the film hints that the city boys may have been hunted right from beginning. There's the lingering shot of the men in the woods when the businessmen first take to their canoes. There's the banjo player on the bridge – perhaps he marks the point of no return. And there's the way that Lewis hears noises in the night when they're camping. Are they really the prey all along? Is their encounter with the mountain men more than chance? Of course, everything is pure speculation, but it's certainly open for debate.

And the rape scene, of course, is brutal and shocking, but what makes it so disturbing is the interplay between the two hillbillies. It's as if they're flirting. It's as if it's some perverted love scene between the pair of them. The lingering looks they give one another and the chuckles of satisfaction certainly indicate this. They're probably doing what they'd like to do to each other only they're afraid to. After all, consensual sex between two men makes you gay. Rape, however, is an act of power and dominance. What could be more masculine than that? Of course, I'm being facetious, but the men here aren't really men. They're the animals that lurk in the darkness. They have no compassion and no humanity. Therefore, unlike the other locals they encounter, I feel they completely deserve the sub-human treatment they receive from the city boys. And I also agree with Lewis and his belief that their subsequent fight for survival is a game. That's exactly what it is, and the only thing that matters is that you play it and win. Everything else is secondary, even emotional well-being, because if you lose, even the least satisfying human emotions are denied to you.

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