Sunday, November 30, 2014

Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort (1981), directed by Walter Hill, is like Deliverance except instead of vacationers on a Georgia river running afoul of hillbillies, it involves a squad of National Guardsmen running afoul of Cajuns in a Louisiana bayou. Also, there's less Ned Beatty rape (most likely owing to the fact Ned Beatty is not in this picture).

It's violent, it's bleak, and it's mesmerizing in places, but it falls short of Deliverance and not just because John Boorman's picture came out first. I think the reason for that is because Southern Comfort has more than twice as many characters in peril (nine vs four), and they aren't as well drawn.  Plus, the defining characteristics of the squad members are how most of them are redneck assholes who do much to deserve the ire of the Cajuns. Still, as an action thriller centered on a clash of cultures, Southern Comfort is a tense story of survival.

The cast is packed with a who's-who of tough guy character actors. Peter Coyote is their leader, Fred Ward is the unstable violent one, and Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe play the relatively calm stable members. Marching through the bayou on an exercise and carrying mostly blanks, the squad gets lost and decides to steal some canoes they find. As a joke, one of the squad members uses his machine gun to fire blanks at some Cajuns they see on the other side of the river, and the Cajuns respond with lethal force. The rest of the movie writes itself as the Cajuns, who know the terrain better than these Weekend Warriors, pick off the guardsmen. There's also some in-fighting and one Cajun (Brion James) the men take captive when they assume him to be one of the killers.

The movie is set in 1973, and while Hill reportedly denied it was his intention, the film can be read as a commentary on the Vietnam War. The parallels are numerous: American soldiers with the latest in technology and firepower march through hostile territory, unable to tell friend from foe as a relentless enemy more familiar with the terrain sets traps and ambushes. Instead of winning the hearts and minds of the natives, the squad tries to bully them, taking and destroying their property and alienating themselves further. Even the bayou setting, with its elaborate river system and heavy green canopy, resembles the jungles of Vietnam to a fashion.

The bayou setting is important because it allows Hill to obscure the Cajuns. Like the Viet Cong, they move more easily through the foliage than their targets, and our glimpses of them are brief, sometimes limited to a figure darting from behind one tree to another or in a long distance shot that we can't make out too well. The effect imbues the Cajuns with an omnipresence: they can be anywhere and attack at anytime. Some of the more chilling scenes aren't the death scenes, but the little clues the Cajuns leave behind for the guardsmen to find, such as the dead rabbits strung up or the line of bear traps in the water. In the final moments of the movie, the last two survivors of the squad end up in a Cajun village after hitching a ride on the back of a truck with a pair of pigs; in the village, two nooses are set up, and we can't be sure whether they're for the men or the pigs.

But make no mistake: while not overwhelmingly graphic, Southern Comfort is a violent picture, and the deaths, while not as messy as they could have been, look quite painful and terrifying. One trap drives dozens of wooden spikes into one man's chest. Another man, in a blind panic, takes off through the swamp and ends up sinking in quicksand, his fate never known to his compatriots. The guardsmen are reasonably tough, but they're at the mercy of not only the natives but also nature.

All this is tense and exciting, but I can't help but feel I'd appreciate the movie more if more sympathy had been generated for the imperiled guardsmen. Outside of Boothe and Carradine and maybe Coyote, they're a stupid, self-destructive, hypocritical, clumsy, racist, ill-prepared bunch, and for most of them, it's hard to feel bad about what happens to them. One character burns down a hut full of supplies and ammunition they desperately need for no reason other than Hill's story needs a crazy character. And of course, the black guy is the one smoking weed while on duty. Deliverance got the notion of unprepared city folk transgressing on the wilderness much better and gave Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox some dimensions, so while they made mistakes, the movie didn't beat you over the head with them.

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