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Southern Comfort (1981)
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Walloping Walter Hill Entertainment"
4 stars

Imagine Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger pursuing you in a murky swamp.

Breathlessly exciting and extraordinarily made, Southern Comfort doesn't have the most complex screenplay in the world, and it doesn't need one because it's got a terrifying story that's been complexly told through bravura craftsmanship in the directing, editing and lighting departments. It's a welcome return to form for Walter Hill, who made the superb big-city entertainments The Driver and The Warriors but stumbled last time out with the indifferent Western The Long Riders, which strained too hard at attaining a romantic mysticism it just couldn't achieve. (Phillip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid was a far better, more focused genre entry utilizing the character of Jesse James.) Hill co-produced Alien and was originally slated to direct it, and with Southern Comfort he's managed to make a non-sci-fi version of it involving a squad of mostly-inexperienced National Guardsman reservists being relentlessly hunted and systematically slaughtered by a band of violent Cajuns in Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin, a few-million-acres swamp. It's as foreign and eerie to these non-backwoods guys as a country bumpkin plopped into the middle of New York City; and where the humans in Alien had to do battle with a virtually-indestructible monster with only flamethrowers, the humans here, on one of their once-a-month training exercises slogging through the bayou to reach a scheduled checkpoint, haven't been issued live ammunition for their automatic rifles, but blanks. Everything's going along fine until they reach a watery impasse not on the map, and seeing some canoes on the shore and nobody around, they decide to borrow three of them to get across; they leave a note at the site explaining that they'll be returned. They're halfway across when they see the owners looking at them, but not being able to read English they think the canoes are being stolen; and then as a joke one of the squad points his rifle at them and fires. He's shooting blanks but they don't know this, and after a few seconds the squad leader's head is blown apart; one man panics and tips over a canoe, spilling the men out as well as their radio and other essentials. They make it to the shore, and the orderly unity of the squad starts to break down.

The second-in-command isn't nearly as astute as his predecessor, and while his strictly-by-the-rule-book demeanor may seem a bit of a cliche we buy into it anyway because he's not exactly a full-time enlisted man in the armed services. The squad's goal is to find their checkpoint so they can be choppered out, but as they, and the audience, who's right there with them in a frazzled apprehensive state that Hill expertly evokes, slowly come to realize, these primitive Cajuns who know every lay of the land are intent on stalking and taking every one of them out. Not helping matters is a squad made up of men of entirely different temperaments: the machismo-fueled ones refuse to acknowledge the superiority of their adversaries and insist on seeking them out by taking wild chances; the more reasoned, contemplative of them are wise enough to appropriately size their adversaries up and admit they're in their backyard. The rendezvous isn't for several hours, and it's a generous estimate there won't be a search party via helicopter until the next morning at the very least; and it's about here we come to an unnerving realization the men don't -- that their green uniforms, now darkened by the water, are camouflaging them amid their surroundings, and thus obscuring them from above; and that the Cajuns, from generations of superb hunters, don't need to see bright-colored clothing to track them. In another neat touch, the moviemakers don't have them employ just firearms as weapons but man-made things such as steel-jawed animal traps and six-foot boards affixed with wood spikes that spring out of the water; and Mother Nature elements play into the equation, too, like water bottoms that open up all of a sudden and can swallow a man whole like quicksand. It's a nightmarish situation, and this only gradually dawns on the men because some think basic rules still apply according to their ages-old survival handbooks (the new leader insists, "Survival is a mental outlook"); after a while, they're both practically and literally at each other's throats, and it's to the movie's credit that their desperate actions are never banal. In a way, Hill's getting at something genuine here: the way some people are willing to risk theirs and others' lives rather than admit they're up against a formidable enemy, which can be seen as a parable of the Vietnam War, but if it is Hill wisely doesn't lean too hard on that.

If anything, Southern Comfort can be seen as a parable of a lot of wars: the Cajuns' old guns deliver a deafening boom like the musket rifles out of the 19th century; one of the guardsman affixes a knife to his otherwise-useless rifle and madly charges forth as if it were a bayonet; and when some tall trees have been rigged to fall and come crashing down around the panicked men, it's amplified so it sounds like mortar fire. (In another similarity to Alien, the enemy is sparsely seen: we get only brief glimpses, and they're fast and blurred in movement, which causes us to use or imaginations to fill in the details, which, of course, makes them even more scary.) Freeman A. Davies has edited many of Hill's pictures, and he keenly shaves off a crucial second from particular shots; he keeps us as off-balanced as the guardsmen -- the suspense gets so unbearable at times that we keep wishing for a clearer look and a moment's longer reaction time to get a proper reading on things. And Andrew Laszlo, who stylishly photographed The Warriors (as well as First Blood), has deftly desaturated the colors to a monochromatized dark-green with only semblances of variance -- there's a staggeringly suggestive shot from above as the guardsman slog through a muddy marsh where their vulnerability is heightened where we have a hard time differentiating them from their surroundings. They've figuratively become one of nature, with all predators in any given environment vulnerable to a superior hunter. There's so much going on in the movie that we're allowed to grasp the implications without being given enough time to fully work them out; instead of laying things on thick, Hill loves keeping us disoriented and more than a little bit slow on the uptake -- we're apprehensively wigged-out, and every time we think things are going to settle down, something else goes wrong, and we find we're as helpless at reaching a comfortable zone as the guardsmen. (There's no cinematic artifice separating us from them; the you-are-there vitality glues us to them without asking us if it's alright.) Later on, there are just two survivors left, and they make it to a tiny village where a community festival is going on, and are welcomed by the good-natured folk who let them wash up and bring them beers. There's a folk band loudly playing to a dancing crowd, and as much as one of the men wants to let his guard down, the other doesn't; he soon spies through a window three scruffy-looking men getting out of a canoe, and he's highly suspicious but can't be sure if they're "them" -- again, he's never been given that clear a look.

Suffice to say, Southern Comfort is as close to a horror movie without actually being a horror movie, at least in concept. Hill has always had a supreme gift for action, for cutting sequences together with the breathtaking skill the majority in his profession only wish they possessed. But rather than going the expected route with guns always blazing and fancy cars chasing (he's done all of that before), he's made the ultimate primordial action picture: one without witty one-liners and comfy love interests and know-it-all heroes, just unpleasant realism that gets deep under your skin and presents violence with the utmost seriousness. And he doesn't shuck characterization in the process. Most of the actors are given ample screen time, and nobody comes off as a one-dimensional cipher, so when the two heroes emerge from the mud and muck and arrive at that village, played by Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe (both of whom have never been better), they're not front and center because they're played by "star" actors but because they're interesting and have displayed believable amounts of reserve to where we can accept their having made it this far. It's particularly refreshing that Boothe's character, the most fearless and violence-prone of the two, is a college-educated chemical engineer in civilian life, and also that Carradine's wisely one, who we initially think will have all the answers, is wrong on a couple of occasions -- he thinks that releasing the one Cajun they've captured (who they're still not sure fired the shot that killed their leader) will end the carnage, when in fact even after he's released the benevolent Cajuns keep on, hunting them down for sadistic fun. (If one thinks back to Alien, the creature proceeded to try knock everybody off regardless of whether or not they were threatening it.) Oh, the screenplay isn't exactly blameless. A mentally-unstable guardsman blowing up a rustic shack full of dynamite and ammunition before it can be requisitioned for the benefit of the squadron is odious. And the final confrontation in close indoor quarters that relies on some in-the-nick-of-time chance interceding to keep the heroes alive is indeed formulaic. But the movie is an exhilarating experience. It's also an astonishingly fast-moving one: it seems like only seventy minutes long rather than one-hundred-and-six minutes; and yet the editing is never bombastically frenetic, hurried but not harried. Like the liquor it's named after, Southern Comfort goes down lean and mean and strong and with one hell of an unapologetic kick.

Unfortunately, the DVD is bare-bones. Surely an audio commentary with Hill and some of the other stellar talents who worked on this is due.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5663&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/12/11 19:08:47
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell tense & exciting 4 stars
2/07/12 Per Larsson superbely shot by Andrew Laszlo,Hill at his best! 5 stars
11/05/08 L. Gary Underated action thriller with dark moments of brillance. Carradine delivers as usual. 4 stars
4/09/07 David Pollastrini great action 5 stars
2/06/07 AJ Muller Hill is the greatest living American director of action. A flat-out classic. 5 stars
1/31/07 action movie fan great thriller!! national guardsmen pursued by hostile cajuns! terrific finale in cajun vil 5 stars
10/26/06 Craig Stevenson An over-looked gem...very engaging! 4 stars
6/25/06 MP Bartley Strange, eerie and compelling. A neglected gem. 4 stars
2/18/06 greg laplante great movie.Kind of wish you was there in the fight. with the guardsmen of course. 5 stars
1/15/06 Sugarfoot One of Walter Hill's best movies. Why aren't Carradine,Boothe and Ward bigger stars? 5 stars
11/25/04 Fred Hudson It's the real South, living it is believing this movie is the real thing! 5 stars
11/23/04 alex fast paced-never slows down 5 stars
8/03/04 Christina Ammons Pretty good movie. Smooth editing. 4 stars
2/23/04 Lawrence Superb! 5 stars
11/28/03 john great thriller with superb direction 5 stars
8/11/03 Susan Hill Great cast. Soldiers behaving badly with the wrong people. Ending confusing 4 stars
4/19/03 Jack Sommersby Tense and scary. Goes awry at th end, though. 4 stars
2/26/03 Paul Coleman Strange film. Good direction by Walter Hill. 4 stars
1/12/03 Stevo a pretty atmospheric, exciting b-movie type 4 stars
9/11/02 Charles Tatum Kind of creepy until awful ending 3 stars
4/04/02 R.W. Welch Passable lost-in-the-swamp action pic, runs a bit long for the material. 3 stars
12/29/01 Sergeant Knucklehead My intent is too urinateon the original footage of this pice of dog shit movie 1 stars
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  25-Sep-1981 (R)
  DVD: 22-May-2001



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