Directed by: Walter Hill
Starring: Powers Booth, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, Peter Coyote
Deliverance is easily one of the most iconic riffs on southern backwoods terror ever made. With every film at this level of importance other similar films are spawned. I’m not saying that Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort is a rip off of Deliverance, but I don’t know that there would be a Southern Comfort had Deliverance not been made. Sometimes one great piece of art can inspire a different artist to take a stab at the same kind of work. Walter Hill made his film in 1981 just two years after crafting the grindhouse classic The Warriors. Hill is also responsible for producing Alien, and directing other classic films such as 48 Hours, and Another 48 Hours. So, to say that a man with Hill’s pedigree simply ripped off another idea doesn’t work here. With that said the cover art on Shout! Factory’s new release of this film does feature a tag line calling Southern Comfort a perfect partner to Deliverance.
In this story a group of weekend warriors, National Guard soldiers, are on isolated training exercises deep in the Louisiana swamps. One particular group of soldiers gets lost in the mix and find themselves trying to get back to base or reconnected with the rest of their team. The film immediately feels dirty, and grimy all the way down to the subtle but repetitive score by Ry Cooder. As is common in movies of this nature the guys in charge have no clue what they are doing and the one real warrior in the mix played by Powers Boothe has no care what is happening until things get ugly and even then he’s out for himself. The story takes a turn when it is decided that the group will steal some canoes to get across a river. When the owners of the canoes, a group of French backwoods types appear, one of the soldiers fires off his machine gun at them, which is loaded with blanks. The soldier thinks the prank is really funny until one of the backwoods dudes fires back with a real gun and kills one of the soldiers. Then the movie becomes the chase film that it will be all the way to the end.
Stand out performances in the film come from Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe. Boothe is ridiculously not likeable but you find yourself not blaming him for being short with the idiots he’s tasked to deal with. Carradine on the other hand is likeable and you just want to see this guy survive. The effect he has on the audience is the same that he eventually has on the group of soldiers as they slowly begin to switch to following his lead. Some of the characters are a little wooden and the Cajun villains don’t get much character development but it all works for this final hurrah for grindhouse movie making. Hill’s pacing in the film and cinematography work to make this world feel real and dangerous and for the most part, outside of one slightly humorous quicksand scene, it all holds up thirty years later.
The film is an obvious allegory for the American experience in Vietnam. It isn’t more apparent than in one really well executed moment when one soldier crying is about to be killed and his says the whole thing is a mistake and he isn’t even supposed to be there; solid social commentary here. Great grindhouse movies always had social angst build into them. My favorite example of social commentary in grindhouse filmmaking is easily Dawn of the Dead and that film’s riff on the impending doom of consumerism. There are some great scenes that build tension and suspense in the film that combine the overly long party atmosphere of the beginning of The Deer Hunter with the backwoods weirdness of the small town of Deliverance. Hill utilizes his influences in the last act to really make the film work. Just as the characters are really basic in their development, the films ending is basic in its wrap up. When Hill is finished with the story he ends its clean and easy without any fluff and decor Southern Comfort basically just stops but it does so in a way that makes sense. The ending of the film is reminiscent of many micro budget drive-in films that just had to stop this way because the filmmakers ran out of money, time or film, or all of the above. Southern Comfort is one of Walter Hill’s most entertaining films and fans of his work or of Deliverance should give it a go.
This “new HD transfer” from Scream Factory (an imprint of Shout Factory) is a real mixed bag. Close ups offer nice detain and clarity and the overall color pallet is purposefully muddy and well executed. The problems are many though. There are compression artifacts and video noise which are laid over an often thick layer of film grain making the image appear a little splotchy in places. There’s even some telecine jitter during the credits. For the most part the film is absolutely viewable; it’s just a rough 1080p presentation. We do get the film in 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the grittiness of the image can actually enhance the seediness of the overall film. It ain’t purtty but it does the job.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track does a pretty good job of making the viewing experience feel like it probably did when the movie was originally presented in theaters. With that said a surround remix with deeper audio would have been appreciated. Dialogue is clear throughout and Ry Cooder’s slide guitar sounds great too. The heavy music at the end during the party scenes can feel a little too bright though. Overall while everything is cleanly presented the mix just feel shallow and lacks the impact a good surround mix would have provided.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The DVD/Blu-Ray combo comes packed in a standard blu case with just OK art for the cover. The good is that the art isn’t floating heads but the bad is that the art just doesn’t quite own the importance of the film at all.
The best bit of supplemental material on the blu-ray is a making of featurette that features interviews with several cast members and Skype calls with Walter Hill mixed with scenes from the film. In the best part of the featurette every cast member discusses how Southern Comfort is an allegory for the events in Vietnam while Hill denies that the film’s script had anything at all to do with that war. It’s almost humorous to hear everyone involved with the film agree on this fact while Hill denies it. Even co-writer David Giler says the film is an allegory for Vietnam! There are other good moments of behind the scenes storytelling and production anecdotes too. Outside of this featurette, which runs just under a half hour, there’s an original trailer (always appreciated) and a still gallery. The still gallery in particular, but the whole menu presentation overall on this blu-ray, feels a little like first gen DVD.
There needed to be some sort of audio commentary on this movie.
Southern Comfort is a must see as a time capsule of America’s feelings in the era in which the film was made and simply as a gritty and often surprisingly dark adventure. Southern Comfort is a stripped down minimalist type of film with no frills or accents. Within minutes the story gets rolling and it steamrolls all the way to the finale. Fans of Hills’ work should own this one and fans of Deliverance should actually get this one as a book end, it’s true.