[1972] Deliverance

There’s not a lot of nuance in the other. There’s you, and then there’s the people who are not you.

In your world, there’s you, your team, your group. In this group are people that agree with you, people that agree with people you agree with, and so forth. It’s both expansive and inclusive, but it’s insulated; and it requires an outgroup, whose shores seem to constantly be receding. The outgroup is, of course, definitely wrong and it’s important to say so. In castigating the other as “wrong,” you’ve given up nuance. Deliverance is the ultimate ingroup/outgroup movie on its surface, and lots has been written about its city slicker versus backcountry savagery.

This is the least interesting discussion we might have about Deliverance, a movie filled with nuance and shifting group dynamics. It continues to be unfair to paint parts of America with a broad a brush as Deliverance does. In the late 1960s / early 1970s, lots of America was not urbane, urbanized in the eyes of our four “protagonists.” And just because some parts of American culture are different than others does not ascribe to them inherent value. This is not to apologize for *that* scene in this movie as a gross over-generalization. It’s just to say that there’s a lot more to the humanity that’s been overloaded onto the city slickers and underfunded re: the rural folks.

The degree of otherness matters, too. This is perhaps the crux of ingroup/outgroup mechanics: it’s not just those diametrically opposed to you that make up the evil other, it’s those who line up in a different, but parallel line to you. An example: the person who looks like you and frequents the same places you do, but practices a different religion. You’re encouraged to “hate” this other much, much more than the Chinese Buddhist you’ve never met.

In Deliverance the differences are overt. It’s impossible to miss them, especially in this visual medium. The clothes, the mannerisms, the actions (and reactions) that these opposing parties are programmed to take, are all laid bare. It’s what makes Deliverance easy to rewatch (maybe skipping over *that* scene). It’s a predictable expression of stereotype and consequence.

But the nuance that Deliverance captures so clearly is the dynamic among the group: Ed, Lewis, Bobby and Drew. Would they all have survived the trip had the personality/skill combinations been different, even a little? If Lewis had been a little less amped by his own self? If Bobby had been canoeing with Drew instead of Ed? The group, held together by an affinity to the city had ultimately very little to keep them together as they literally drifted apart on the river they were meant to trawl as a fun escape from “real life” in Atlanta.

Absolutely, to be certain, the actions of the “mountain men” were morally and physically inexcusable, but the manner by which director John Boorman paints the folks from the country–perhaps just a few dozen miles from the nearest “urban center of propriety”–is what is truly bizarre about Deliverance. It’s important to reiterate, again, the Appalachian cretin used to paint thousands of square miles of the US as other have used too broad a brush. People, all different kinds, exist almost everywhere.

“But what about the statistics that show these places are poor, white, jobless hooligans?” they say. Sure: there’s some truth to it, but if you’re controlling for whiteness to make the point, “but see whites are poor, too,” you’ve done a good job hiding truth in a flowing river of numbers.

Tragically, the stereotypes have almost stayed the same as the world’s grown up around Appalachia, which has also grown up. America’s coasts didn’t “leave the mountains behind,” unless that’s the elegy a specific hillbilly is pushing. Everything about Deliverance, from the setting to the attitudes is backwards. It’s become the other it so much fears, walled off from modern film royalty. But don’t judge it based on *that scene*.

In a random drawing, Deliverance beat The Godfather exactly 0 times out of 100 at the 45th Academy Awards. The Godfather, so outsized in its win, pushed the other nominees to the fringes of Oscar history. Sounder is a great movie; Cabaret is a classic (think: “All That Jazz”) as is its subject, Bob Fosse; The Emigrants is a strange film that set up a two year run from the Swedish film powerhouse (might be overstating it), with Cries and Whispers receiving a nominationn the following year. Then there’s Deliverance, committed to otherizing itself in whichever group it belongs.

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