Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort


Reviewed by: David Graham

The canon of thriller specialist Walter Hill may seem somewhat one-note, with many fish-out-of-water sagas through perilous terrain that double as revisionist Westerns in disguise (see under-rated Ice T/Ice Cube vehicle Trespass as well as cult classic The Warriors), but his defining moment remains as incredibly powerful as it is utterly unique. An ideal companion piece to Deliverance but considerably more full-blooded than John Boorman's contemplative cautionary tale, Southern Comfort echoes America's involvement in Vietnam but by placing his squad of less-than-battle-hardened troops in their own backyard, Hill wrings even more discomfort from their trials and appears even more critical of his country's gung-ho attitude. The oppressive atmosphere of the swamp and the tension between the frustrated alpha males are so thick right up to the final frame you could cut the air with one of their knives, while the trauma of the experience lingers long after the credits roll.

A rag-tag group of 1973 National Guardsmen aren't exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of a routine training excursion through the cold, wet Louisiana bayou, but it's not just the landscape that turns hostile after a patronising prank backfires. With the local hunters hot on their tails and a maze of dangers natural and otherwise between them and 'civilisation', the men soon turn on each other and start dropping like flies. Literally up to their necks in the proverbial shit, it falls to charismatic smart-ass Spencer (Keith Carradine) to begrudgingly lead the weekend warriors, finding an ally in stony-faced new guy Hardin (Powers Boothe) even though he's ruffled a few of the others' feathers. The capture of a Cajun prisoner (Brion James) splits the men even more down the middle, leading to confrontations that could see their unit implode if the swamp and its inhabitants don't claim them first.

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Some campground tomfoolery and a sarcastic briefing immediately establish how misguided and ill-prepared these men are, their naivety going hand in hand with their unchecked boorishness. The idiotic encounter that acts as a catalyst for the cat-and-mouse pursuit is reminiscent of Deliverance, but the palpable sense of dread permeating everything thereafter puts this almost on a par with such raw-edged horror classics as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, right down to the gruesome hunting spoils adorning the trees like some kind of ritualistic subliminal warning.

Later, the excruciating animal slaughter that parallels the final chase sequence is perhaps even more upsetting than comparable scenes in Cannibal Holocaust, with the pigs clearly still alive as they're being bled and skinned. It's entirely in keeping with the cruelty on display elsewhere, and Hill would no doubt argue that this is how the Cajuns operate on a daily basis, but he perhaps revels in it a little too much for more sensitive viewers to endure.

Similarly, his depiction of the bayou-billies runs the risk of slipping into xenophobic caricature; despite the hospitality some of them afford nominal heroes Spencer and Hardin, a sinister sense of distrust in their motives is cultivated throughout. However, even during the most outlandish moments of terror - featuring spiked booby-traps and sadistically dug-up graves - the emphasis is kept on the platoon's ignorance clashing with the Cajuns' practicality. Like Leatherface and his cannibal clan, the self-sufficient locals are only doing what they know, and behave in keeping with American notions of propriety by simply protecting themselves and their land from trespassers, while the guardsmen continually make matters worse for themselves through their disregard, foolish conduct and inability to co-operate with each other.

Anyone who found the endless arguments of Day Of The Dead insufferable may find these bickering buffoons similarly unappealing, while the almost complete lack of female characters and correspondent macho banter (Freud would have a field day with a wickedly scene-stealing Fred Ward's description of a bear-trap as 'like a steel pussy') will further turn some viewers off, but the script is solely dedicated to tightening screws and is thus wholly successful. Carradine and Boothe make a sympathetic cocky/stoic double act, their exchanges loaded with a desperation that belies their fundamental self-awareness and decency in the face of their plight, increasing the intensity ten-fold by giving us characters to really root for. Even when one of their sanity-challenged number starts spouting religious babble, Hill uses his mania more as a ticking time-bomb suspense device rather than any critique of Christian devotion.

One of the most unbearably tense scenes involves a fog-bound knife-fight between the men, highlighting how lost they are and how they must battle between their own rationalism, brutality and humanity. With James' brilliantly ambiguous prisoner egging them on in his native tongue, the coup de grace is memorably disturbing, reinforcing the amorality of the whole situation. It's here that Hill digs deepest into the futility of the troops' struggle, backed into a corner by their language, the foreign climate, a bewildering landscape and their own pride. The climax is also one of the most sustained exercises in nail-biting suspense imaginable, the jovial ho-down in the background only adding to the unease.

A coruscating picture emerges of an America at war with itself, often taking its own insecurities out on cultures it can't hope to understand or assert its domination over. The universality of this predicament represents probably the best argument for Hill's assertion the the film isn't explicitly meant to be about Vietnam. Indeed, the culture clash in question could just as easily have revolved around sexuality as it does in Friedkin's Cruising, with a strong homo-erotic undercurrent already running through the platoon's relationships and in particular, the two opposing bromances at its core. Even their blank-firing impotence and fall-back on out-thrust bayonets points towards a fear of feeling sexually inadequate in the face of a superior and alien male force.

However you read it, Southern Comfort is a dynamically exciting experience, powered by a lean, prickly script by Hill, David Giler and Michael Kane as well as edgy performances from an excellent ensemble including Peter Coyote and The Thing's TK Carter. Franklyn Seales proves particularly effective as the family man whose anguished screams of "No more!" really chill the soul, while his tragic pleading of "I'm not supposed to be here" imbues the escalating danger with a pathos that's become even more pertinent with the knowledge of his untimely 1990 AIDS-related death at the age of 37.

Ry Cooder's menacing but gorgeous pedal-steel score and the burnished cinematography are the icing on the cake, although this Blu Ray re-issue could perhaps have made more of them. The iconic gangs of The Warriors may ensure that remains Hill's best-loved movie, but there's definitely more to savor with Southern Comfort, and it's arguably his most impressive work.

Reviewed on: 18 Dec 2012
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Southern Comfort packshot
National Guardsmen on an remote exercise run into trouble on the bayou.
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Director: Walter Hill

Writer: Walter Hill, Michael Kane, David Giler

Starring: Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, TK Carter, Franklyn Seales

Year: 1981

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


EIFF 2015

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