What is Lost on the Cahulawassee: Psychological Consequences in Deliverance
March 14, 2019 at 1:26 pm #1355Tyler WaldriffParticipant
Four friends take two canoes down one ferocious river in the remote Georgian wilderness. What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, a lot. John Boorman’s Deliverance follows the harrowing journey of four “city slickers” weekend retreat down the Cahulawassee River. The men seek to escape the monotony of their regular lives to reclaim some aspect of their masculinity that has been lost in the civilized world. This is especially true for the survival obsessed alpha male, Lewis (Burt Reynolds), who thrives on adventure and hazard. Following him are the crass buffoon, Bobby (Ned Beatty), the straight edge, morally pure Drew (Ronny Cox), and the uncertain, timid Ed (Jon Voight). Their quest to reignite their masculine pride becomes more than they bargain for, however, when they are forced to contend with two sociopathic mountain men. This leads them into a nightmarish fight for survival that takes a drastic physical and psychological toll on each character, revealing the folly of seeking out danger for the sake of ego.
These consequences vary by character but are generally negative for all. In the case of Lewis, the survival situation is initially appealing to him. Earlier in the film he talks about “the system failing,” presumably referring to the system of technology in modern civilization, which will eventually cause humanity to adapt to primitive survival once it falls. He seems very well prepared for this, as he kills one of the mountain men without hesitation to save Ed and makes the bold decision to bury the body to avoid legal repercussions. As a man that is fueled by his vigor to overcome the challenges of nature, it is only fitting that nature is the one to put him back in his place with a leg injury on the river that renders him useless for the remainder of the trip. Both the physical pain he suffers and the psychological torment of knowing that he is useless to the group when they need him most must be agonizing for Lewis.
As the moral compass of the group, Drew is frustrated with their decision to conceal the dead body, and he subsequently exhibits erratic behavior such as viciously digging at the grave of the mountain man, and refusing to wear his life jacket on the rapid water. While the audience is meant to believe that he is hit by a bullet that causes him to fall dead out of the canoe, the jaded expression on his face and his relaxed tumble into the river imply that the act was voluntary, as though his guilty conscience will not allow him to continue living. As for Bobby, despite having suffered the most psychological trauma (being raped by one of the mountain men), his behavior is not much different from how he initially is (which is pretty much dead weight) suggesting that his mental scarring is best healed by blocking the memory from his head altogether and trying to forget.
The most significant change occurs for Ed, who must overcome his nerves to kill the remaining mountain man that stalks them from the cliffs above. Throughout the film, Ed is characterized as a passive follower of Lewis’s who goes on these adventures with Lewis but can’t quite figure out why he does. Ed has a nice job, a nice wife, and a nice kid as Lewis states, and yet he throws himself into opportunities that will allow him to escape them, perhaps because he is bored of it all. This familial, civilized aspect of Ed keeps him docile, and it is only when he relinquishes these ties to society that he is able to step up and become the competent survivor he must be. This is evident when he loses the picture of his family while scaling the cliffs, symbolizing a change in Ed that allows him to go through with killing the other mountain man. This transition in Ed’s character has drastic consequences on his personality. Initially, Ed is hesitant to bury the first mountain man; however, after Ed murders the second one, he has no qualms about dumping the body in the river and concocting a cover story to ensure the group is not connected. After reaching Aintry, Ed breaks down crying at the dinner table as he reflects the trauma he has endured, and suffers nightmares of the trip afterward, suggesting that Ed’s experience will leave long term psychological damage.
For all the suffering that these men have endured, it is important to consider what they gained. Early in the film, Lewis states, “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.” Lewis, Bobby, Drew, and Ed certainly lost themselves on the Cahulawassee, but they did not find the masculine ideal of man conquering nature that they hoped for. Rather, their journey is rife with suffering and loss, both physical and emotional, forever changing their lives, though not at all in the way they surely thought it would.
– Tyler WaldriffMarch 25, 2019 at 8:31 am #1361Shaina FifieldParticipant
I agree that these men were hoping to gain masculinity from this rigorous canoe trip, but they surely did not get that from the tragic events that took place in the film. I also found it interesting the way that Bobby dealt with his trauma, because he was able to continue on with the story like nothing ever happened. Bobby just wanted to forget about it, because for him it was traumatizing and embarrassing that he was not able to defend himself, making him feel like he was less of a man.
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