Deliverance is one of those classic movies most well-recognized for certain unforgettable scenes, but is really best-experienced if you have no knowledge of those particular scenes. Many of you likely know of them already, and they’d already been spoiled for me ages before seeing the movie itself, but if they haven’t been for you, watch it with as blank a slate as possible. This had nothing to do with how I myself judged the film, but the less information you have about it beforehand, the better.
Of course, in order to properly explain my overall opinion of Deliverance, the film’s plot and tone will have to be explored as thoroughly as possible while dodging any real spoilers, which is still revealing more than you should probably know. I know all this may sound a little hyperbolic, but if you keep reading past this point, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
For nearly half of its almost-2-hour long runtime, Deliverance very convincingly pretends to be something it isn’t. Even if you were to notice the film’s R rating, you’d really have no reason to believe it’s anything more than a warm, light-hearted buddy comedy about four friends canoeing down Northern Georgia’s scenic rivers, if only to get one last glimpse of this untamed wilderness before the whole area’s irreversibly dammed.
These friends are Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty), and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox), and though the raging rapids and empty forests aren’t exactly what they’re used to, they’re nevertheless prepared for any trouble that might come their way. Until they aren’t.
Even before the story’s upbeat nature is suddenly turned on its head, Deliverance’s view of the desolate backwoods is hardly sentimental, but it quickly sours as the film’s tone turns darker. Emphasizing this, very little music is ever used, and even when it is, it’s mostly saved for very specific moments of fear and tension-building.
The biggest exception to this, of course, would be the rousing “Dueling Banjos” sequence near the film’s beginning, but in hindsight, even this short, good-natured merry-making with some friendly local Southerners feels like a slap in the face. Without giving too much away, if you know anything about the “certain unforgettable scenes” in question, it’s pretty easy to see how.
After that point, when any semblance of control slips further and further from the characters’ fingers, Deliverance impressively sustains the oppressive dread looming over their heads, thanks in no small part to how vividly the lush cinematography and atmospheric sound design brings the surrounding woods to life. If anything, these perilous wilds are the real main character here, even with the entire cast’s performances (particularly Voight’s) being uniformly excellent.
Considering all this, it’s undeniable that Deliverance does so much so well, and it’s easy to see why it’s so highly regarded as a genre classic (in 2008, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”). However, it’s admittedly hard to praise it as enthusiastically as I’d like to, simply because of how disappointingly abrupt and anti-climactic the ending is.
This doesn’t make the rest of the film not worth seeing, of course, but when it so excellently builds up to an expected payoff of full-blown bloodshed or chaos, only for the story to suddenly come to a halt before that payoff can occur, it just feels slightly underwhelming. That’s not to imply that the rest of Deliverance isn’t effectively horrifying in its own right, but at this point in the story, so much more could’ve been further developed or explored with the terrible situation these characters are in.
As the brutal consequences of their decisions rapidly snowball into worse and worse decisions, it’s hard not to wish for the violent suspense to have been stretched out a bit longer. Even a solid 20 additional minutes (if not more) of rising terror would have suited the tone just fine, and aptly provided a viscerally intense conclusion to this twisted tale. Really, it’s not the story’s resolution in of itself that frustrates me; it’s how much sooner it arrives than the film needs it to.
I know there aren’t many other people feeling this way, even with Deliverance initially being greeted with puzzlement by critics like Roger Ebert. In fact, now that I know what to expect, perhaps I’ll even feel differently when seeing the film a second time, though I’m not really rushing to anytime soon.
Judging by these first impressions, though, it was difficult to decide how to rate Deliverance. All things considered, it could very well go up a point (to an 8/10) later, but my current rating is far from an indicator that I didn’t enjoy it. Regardless of my issues with the conclusion, this is certainly one of the more unique survival thrillers I’ve seen, so if you can stomach how uncompromisingly uncomfortable the story becomes, it’s difficult not to respect.
PERSONAL UPDATE: As you may have noticed, I’ve been taking a very long break from proper review-writing to concentrate on finishing high school: a task that was obviously the biggest priority for me. Now that I’ve officially graduated, I’ll be taking full advantage of my gap year to more consistently publish reviews, which always require my full concentration to turn out how I’d like them to. Trust me: depending on how things in my life go, more really is to come on this site.