Here's an example of one of our longer write-ups in the book. These start with "Now Showing" information, a seventy-character "Preview" (always exactly seventy characters), a "Fine Line" (a quote from the movie), and a "Close-Up" on a specific scene. Then come the essay's title and a 900-word discussion, followed by an "Added Attraction" that supplements the main movie with an extra list or further analysis.
NOW SHOWING: Deliverance (July 1972)
Director: John Boorman
Stars: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty
Academy Awards: Three nominations (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Editing)
PREVIEW: Friends take a canoe trip into the backcountry and find life-threatening dangers.
FINE LINE: "Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything." (Lewis, giving Ed his first look at the river.)
CLOSE-UP: The song in the energetic four-minute banjo scene is called "Duelling Banjos," though only the boy plays a banjo (Drew plays guitar). All the characters enjoy the moment, and one local even improvises a playful jig. Significantly, the scene shows how out-of-place the city slickers are. Drew can't keep up, and once the song concludes he offers his hand to the boy, who refuses to shake it. Bobby's condescending response is to "give him a coupla bucks."
"YOU DON'T BEAT THIS RIVER": Deliverance
In the early 1970s, several important developments spurred the ecology movement in America. Among these were the first Earth Day, the Clear Air Act, and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970; the creation of Greenpeace in 1971; the Clean Water Act, and even John Denver's hit song "Rocky Mountain High," in 1972. With the environment a major national concern, in 1972 Hollywood responded with a run of nature-themed movies in various genres, including Westerns (Jeremiah Johnson), horror (Frogs), and science-fiction (Silent Running). But the best nature-themed movie of the year--perhaps of the decade--was Deliverance (1972).
An Oscar nominee for Best Picture, this gripping, well-crafted thriller still packs a powerful wallop. Nature is beautiful and worth exploring with respect, Deliverance tells us, but it's also unpredictable and hostile. As the movie transitions from a happy-go-lucky weekend getaway into a terrifying fight for survival, we realize that in a man-vs.-nature confrontation the best anyone can hope for is a tie.
Deliverance opens with five seconds of laughter as four guys yak about a casual Friday-Sunday canoe trip. They're heading into a "vanishing wilderness" with vague plans to cruise the last "wild, untamed, unpolluted" major river in Georgia before it's dammed up into a huge lake. Of the four guys, only one, Lewis (Burt Reynolds, in his best-ever performance), has any river experience. Muscular and macho, wearing a conspicuous "Survival" patch on his jacket, Lewis arrogantly brags, "I don't believe in insurance, there's no risk." Meanwhile, total novices Ed (Jon Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty), and Drew (Ronny Cox) share nervous laughter as they cautiously negotiate rippling water that they mistakenly think qualifies as rapids. They'll soon learn what rapids are.
Early on, there are some edgy signs that trouble lurks ahead. The guys say things like "those woods are real deep," "the river's inaccessible," and "no one can find us up here." An old-timer tells Bobby, "You don't know nuthin'," another local warns them about the trip, and even Lewis concedes, "You don't beat this river." Ed gets spooked and suggests they "go back to town and play golf," but Lewis won't retreat from a challenge.
Saturday starts out bucolic and calm, with quiet music accompanying peaceful scenes along the river. Then, a third of the way into the movie, two rough gun-toting hillbillies arrive on the shore, and everything changes. In an infamous scene, one of the men savagely rapes Bobby. Lewis slays Bobby's attacker with a bow and arrow, and Ed chases off the second hillbilly.
As unforgettable as this nine-minute sequence has been, the next seven minutes are even more fascinating. With the dead victim of the "center shot" propped up, the four men debate their moral dilemma and the question, "What we gonna do with him?" Drew wants to turn the body in because, he shouts, "it is a matter of the law!" "What law!? Where's the law," replies Lewis, defiantly. He and the two others contemplate a possible "murder trial" and a "trial by jury" with the dead man's "mama and his daddy sittin' in the jury box." With their passionate beliefs intensifying into face-to-face shouting matches, eventually they decide to sink the corpse in the river.
The next harrowing half-hour is filled with dramatic adventure. The escaped hillbilly shoots and kills Drew in an exciting four-minute careen down churning white water that leaves the canoes capsized and Lewis with a hideously broken leg. A suspenseful twelve-minute sequence sends Ed up a sheer cliff so he can kill the hillbilly who's hunting them; Ed somehow manages to run himself through with an arrow in the process, but this mild-mannered suburban businessman finds an inner strength he didn't know he had. Eventually the three survivors get off the river, concoct a lie to cover their actions, and run into an inquisitive sheriff (James Dickey, the author of the 1970 novel) who starts exposing contradictions in their story.
All viewers seem to acknowledge how effective the stars and the rustic supporting players are. The scenery looks exquisite, and the action sequences are believable because in many cases the actors are doing their own stunts. However, some viewers register legitimate complaints about the movie. The shocking rape scene, for instance, is so over-the-top that it does seem extreme--we would understand that the hillbillies are demented and deadly without having to witness what happens to Bobby.
It's also possible to call the last fifteen minutes anti-climactic, since visceral action fades into subdued talk. But this ending reinforces one of the movie's themes. Survival in wild nature requires the canoers to kill two men and push themselves to their physical limits, but the safe return to their civilized lives requires cover-ups (disposal of their murder weapon and three corpses, one of them their friend), conspiracy, and equivocation. Nature, civilization--the two worlds are incompatible and require different skills. As if to remind us of the horror that's gone before, one last startling scene at the very end yanks Ed from the security of his own bed. His physical wounds will heal, but the psychological scars may not, and the movie that started with laughter ends, appropriately enough, with a chilling nightmare.
ADDED ATTRACTION: Six '70s Movies That End with a Dream or Vision
Deliverance ends with Ed's ten-second nightmare of a gruesome hand rising from the dark river. Concluding a movie with a dream sequence or vision is a time-honored Hollywood technique. Earlier examples include Wuthering Heights (1939), where ghostly lovers walk off together, and Seconds (1966), which ends with a patient's blissful reverie as a cranial drill bores into his skull. As for the 1970s, here are six great movies that end with dream sequences or visions.
• All That Jazz (1979): Before he dies, Joe hallucinates an eleven-minute musical number.
• Carnal Knowledge (1971): With a hooker kneeling before him, Jonathan has a vision of the beautiful, unattainable ice skater.
• Carrie (1976): As a friend leans down to Carrie's grave, a bloody arm suddenly reaches up from the ground.
• A Clockwork Orange (1971): Now fully "cured," Alex imagines himself romping with a naked girl.
• The Godfather: Part II (1974): Sitting alone, Michael recalls the memory of a 1941 dinner scene.)
• Love and Death (1975): Sonja has a final conversation with the recently executed Boris.
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