Judge Clark Douglas has that good old southern comfort in his bones.
It's the land of hospitality…unless you don't belong there.
"Four of them with automatic weapons against some swamp rat. I make it even money."
Facts of the Case
A squad of the Louisiana National Guard undertakes a rather ordinary weekend drill in the middle of some desolate swampland. It's just another run-of-the-mill training exercise, but things take a startling turn when the squad encounters a handful of Cajun poachers. A misunderstanding leads to a violent conflict, and suddenly the soldiers find themselves being hunted by angry locals who know the land inside and out. To make matters worse, the soldiers have very little live ammunition on hand. Will anyone survive this nightmarish battle?
It's entirely understandable that many critics have interpreted Walter Hill's Southern Comfort as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. As critics, we're used to scouring movies for insightful metaphors, rarely content with the notion that a film can merely be about whatever it's about. This is particularly true when it comes to horror movies, a genre which has made a habit of taking our real-life fears and magnifying them in some grotesque or sensationalist way. However, Hill has repeatedly insisted that his chilling 1981 film has nothing to do with Vietnam. "We were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam," Hill said. "The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, 'People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don't want to hear another word about it."
Well…okay. So, this story of these soldiers fighting an enemy they don't understand in territory which gives their enemy a significant tactical advantage isn't about Vietnam. However, it undeniably does have something larger to say about human nature, and our continued insistence on fighting whatever we don't understand. Observe the scene in which the conflict with the Cajuns begins. The National Guard members have just stolen some of the Cajuns' food and canoes, and four Cajun men are watching in bewilderment as the soldiers paddle down the river. A few of the soldiers try to shout out explanations, but alas, the Cajuns don't seem to speak English. Frustrated with the one-way communication and dismissing the Cajuns as ignorant, one of the soldiers picks up his machine gun and fires a host of blanks at the men. Thinking that they're actually being attacked, one of the Cajuns responds with live ammo. Suddenly, everyone is fighting to the death.
As the film proceeds, more opportunities to resolve the situation present themselves, but too many of the soldiers are too intent on continuing to provoke their enemies. Time and time again, stupid, irrational, emotionally-charged behavior leads to senseless death. This is particularly frustrating for a man like Spencer (Keith Carradine, Nashville), who has the tact and common sense to know just how badly his comrades are screwing everything up. Spencer is easily the most nuanced and compelling character of the bunch, because he doesn't have an overwhelming personality trait that overwhelms his ability to adapt. The other men are standard character types designed to be picked off one-by-one in traditional horror movie fashion. The Cajuns are even more thinly-drawn, simply stalking and killing without getting any real character development. In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—the movie achieves a certain raw, primal terror. It feels awfully similar to Deliverance (a film Southern Comfort compared itself to in its marketing campaign), but it's even more effectively unsettling than that celebrated classic.
Hill has always struck me as a fairly workmanlike director, but he delivers some of the most distinctive and memorable material of his career in Southern Comfort. The use of overlapping imagery during one tense dialogue sequence gives the scene an effectively dreamlike quality, and the swampy atmosphere is so effectively captured that you can almost feel the mosquito bites. The film's high point arrives at the end, an impossibly tense set piece built around a lively Cajun cookout. There's a good deal of uncertainty as to whether we're in the middle of a white-knuckle climax or a depressurizing denouement, and Hill wrings every ounce of tension out of that uncertainty (and underscores the whole thing with lively Cajun music which sounds alternately uplifting and intimidating).
Southern Comfort (Blu-ray) has received a pretty decent 1080p/1.85:1 transfer from the folks at Shout! Factory. The film certainly looks its age, but detail is fairly strong throughout. The image can seem lacking in depth at times, but colors are generally stable and vibrant. A natural layer of grain is present throughout, too. The LPCM 2.0 Mono score is fine, but Ry Cooder's guitar-driven score occasionally sounds a little wobbly. Dialogue tends to be pretty clear, though there are a few moments when it struggles to compete with the sounds of nature. The primary supplement is a new documentary called "The Making of Southern Comfort," which features interviews with Hill, writer/producer David Giler, and actors Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Peter Coyote and Lewis Smith. Other than that, you just get a trailer, a stills gallery and a DVD copy.
Southern Comfort is one of Walter Hill's finest films; a tense horror/thriller that runs deeper than its surface terrors. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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