It's the Land of Hospitality…unless you don't belong.
In the late '70s and early '80s, the Vietnam War was still a festering sore in the seeping, open wound of the American consciousness. A gangrenous mass of a pus-filled discharge in the public mindset, if you will. With this came a bunch of filmmakers who probably weren't any closer to Vietnam than Bill Clinton who made a bunch of films about the horrors of Vietnam. Some, such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, were applauded by critics and embraced by audiences, and this trend continued up into the mid-'80s with Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and Oliver Stone's Academy Award-winning Platoon. There was also a tremendous anti-war sentiment in films of that era, even in genres not even remotely close to war movies. A terrific example of this was Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales, which featured a main character professing peace instead of butchery. Not to be outdone, Peckinpah disciple and veteran director Walter Hill (Last Man Standing, 48 Hrs.) made a different kind of war movie that served as an allegory to the Vietnam War, and MGM has surprisingly provided a solid DVD transfer of Southern Comfort.
Facts of the Case
Welcome to the Louisiana National Guard, an apparent haven for gung ho rednecks if ever there was one. Enter Private Hardin (Powers Boothe—Men of Honor), who has just been transferred in from the Texas National Guard, another apparent haven for gung ho rednecks. You would think Hardin would feel at home in Louisiana, but he doesn't seem to appreciate the weekend retreats that call for tromping around in the cold Louisiana bayou. Hardin quickly befriends self-proclaimed city boy P.F.C. Spencer (Keith Carradine—2 Days In The Valley), who serves as our guide to the remaining personalities of this ragtag unit. Once on their mission, they discover that their maps are somewhat out-of-date and they'll need to head back to their starting point and take a different route unless they "borrow" some canoes from some of the local Cajun populace. The weekend soldiers are nice enough to leave a note, but one of their number is dumb enough to fire blank rounds over the heads of the already teed off locals when they show up. A shot from across the lake proves fatal to Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote—Erin Brockovich), and the ensuing chaos causes the unit to lose their map, compass and radio in the water. Lost in unfamiliar territory and hunted by the people who make this bayou their home, the crew of soldiers strives to find their way out in one piece with only a few rounds of live ammunition. If their Cajun pursuers don't kill them, they just might kill each other when they turn on themselves.
Astute movie fans will immediately see a striking similarity to Deliverance, but, while this certainly can't be denied, Southern Comfort becomes a taut thriller in its own right. The locals go through great lengths to torment the hapless soldiers, laying booby traps marked with an equal number of animal skins (seven soldiers, seven dead rabbits, and seven bear traps) in a frightening strategy that would have made the Blair Witch proud. Without any strong leadership, the group begins to bicker amongst themselves. This isn't helped by Private Simms (Franklyn Seales) displaying psychotic tendencies towards a one-armed Cajun poacher they take as a prisoner, and Private Reece (brilliantly played by Fred Ward—Tremors, Escape From Alcatraz) going a bit insane after the Cajuns set their hunting dogs after the group. The tension in this film is thicker than the quicksand Stuckey (the trigger-happy practical joker who started this mess) eventually finds himself in.
The tension is greatly enhanced by the claustrophobic direction of Walter Hill. I have very frequently accused Walter Hill of taking too much from the directing style of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), and it's a fair cop as evidenced in various scenes in Southern Comfort. However, Walter Hill excels at bringing a tight, asphyxiating feel to his films, something that was particularly noticeable in his underrated urban thriller Trespass. Considering that Southern Comfort takes place in the wide-open spaces of the Louisiana bayou, this is a noticeably remarkable achievement. While some of the situations in the movie are a little outrageous and fueled by character stupidity (okay, I never said they were smart rednecks), he knows what ultimately frightens people (vicious dogs, gun-toting psychos, et cetera) and combines this knowledge with the closed-in feeling from the cinematography. The action slows down at various points in the movie, but there's never a dull moment.
Special mention needs to be made of Ry Cooder's excellent musical score for Southern Comfort. I have never heard southern-style bluegrass music sound as haunting as it did in this film. The movie is worth watching just for Cooder's work alone.
MGM has taken a number of lumps from the DVD-watching community in the past, passing off substandard digital transfers in order to race product onto store shelves. Not so with Southern Comfort, which has a surprisingly nice anamorphic transfer. Fog and night scenes typically are problems for DVD, but these elements abound in this film and the graininess and the edge enhancement are noticeable only to the most discerning eyes. This is a good sign that maybe MGM has finally fully embraced DVD and will hopefully continue to bring a proper level of respect to the medium. The audio is good, considering this is only a mono soundtrack, but you will still end up immersed in the story without the need of six sound channels. The disc loses points due to the lack of special features, which amount to nothing more than the theatrical trailer. I don't believe this film was a major hit, so I really wouldn't have expected anything more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As with most thrillers of this type, the plot suffers a bit from the stupidity of the characters. They wander off on their own, they blow up a poacher's shack for no apparent reason, and they attempt to confront their wily antagonists head on. I'm willing to let these points slide considering that the characters are an uneducated lot and end up in rather stressful circumstances. I'm not entirely sure I would react with calm and cool-headedness if placed in a similar situation.
While Southern Comfort isn't the greatest film I've seen, it's decent enough to keep your attention and keep you off-balance. I can certainly recommend it as a guilty pleasure, so give this one a rental in the near future. You might be surprised at how good it is.
Everyone is acquitted of all charges and are free to go, especially those scary-looking Cajuns. MGM's probation for past offenses of poor digital transfers is hereby rescinded.
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