Walter Hill famously bristled at his film Southern Comfort being referred to as a Vietnam allegory; such denial has had him labeled as inexplicably stubborn, as he’s even quoted as conceding that the 1981 film could withstand and even encourage such a reading. But to awkwardly foist some period-specific topicality upon Hill’s film (while simultaneously whitewashing the war itself, making it only a matter of our good ol’ American boys countering an “invisible” enemy) is to ignore its relative timelessness, as it plays best as a deliciously — and warrentedly — cruel send-up of the United States military industrial complex, digging a National Guard squad deeper into the mud and swamp of the Louisiana bayou in the name of what, exactly? A training mission on domestic soil? When the group comes under (literal gun)fire for firing blanks at a few local Cajuns, the bullshit of all the prior maneuvering becomes painfully real.
No one’s into it to begin with: the brief overview of the National Guard encampment that’s afforded us is a ruthlessly bustling operation, as Hill shoots with alienating long lenses, introducing the primary players as framed, flanked and obscured by a mass military entity that stems into columns, mindlessly working itself around them, the dialogue competing with general clatter. For most of the outfit, the routine exercise is largely a stopgap ahead of a party replete with girls and booze as orchestrated by Pfc. Spencer (the always devilish Keith Carradine), and the general discontentedness attached to the National Guard is only exacerbated. Another weekend spent without live ammunition in the swamp under the command of hardass Poole (Peter Coyote) is a less than ideal obligation for all, from the newly-arrived Texan transplant Corporal Charles Hardin (Powers Boothe) to the trigger-happy machine gunner Stuckley (Lewis Smith), who relishes his weapon with a gold-capped tooth-lined grin.
It’s Stuckley who foments the terrifying descent into Deliverance territory, but Hill fortunately opts not to reprise John Boorman’s caricature-hewing hillbilly hellishness. Instead, the director places the onus solely on the unit, who pilfer some unmanned canoes from the local Cajun populace, who, when they do appear, are greeted by Stuckley’s blanks, which while technically harmless, still ring out as an illusory death sentence, practically encouraging retaliation, as Poole almost instantaneously experiences. The headshot made, the canoes capsize, and thus begins the bare-knuckled, mud-caked wrestling for survival, entrenched in a disorienting and seemingly circuitous landscape that stretches into infinity. The marooned unit is up against nature as much as they are their ceaseless pursuers; the canoes become necessary because the winter rains completely altered the bayou’s geography.
As evidenced by some of the more straightforward violence, Hill can deal some pretty nasty fatal blows; but he knows how to cripple too, letting his characters get bloodied by hunting dogs and banged up by felled trees, all before their inevitable demise. There’s no straightforward delineation of who’s on whose side, different pockets of different characters drawing lines at different intervals, getting lost in the morass of military jargon and absolutism. There’s countless iterations of “fuck the manual!” volleyed back and forth, the chain of command gradually eroding as the “walls” continue to close in. When they come across a lone trapper (played by Brion James), ideas of revenge wrestle with pragmatism — and a healthy dose of fanaticism, as Alan Autry’s Bowden is suddenly inundated with delusions of his being an Avenging Angel — as some of the unit wish to maliciously dispense with the Cajun, while others understand his status as the only one among them who knows just exactly where they are.
Hill favors elemental images over anything else here (with some pretty gorgeous interstitial shots of the bayou void of people, some that with just a tinge of magic hour light and Ry Cooder’s soundtrack, are unimpeachably beautiful), but he also incorporates all that mud and water into some pretty abstract sequences, the swamp suddenly becoming a blur of trees intercut with combat boots splashing across the frame. The Cajun hunters also manipulate the natural world around them, tauntingly stringing up rabbits and setting traps that carry similar portent to the effigies of The Blair Witch Project. This unabashed teasing of horror-film idiom holds forth through the final 15 minutes, a pretty remarkable achievement, the white-knuckle anxiety engendered by the seemingly endless swamp ported over to the comparatively enclosed Cajun village, the celebratory dancing, cooking and eating providing only the most fleeting sense of security.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.