Sunday, December 13, 2009

Southern Discomfort

I saw Southern Comfort on HBO in the early '80s long before I knew who Walter Hill was; I liked The Warriors and Streets of Fire and 48 Hrs. (full review) but I hadn't connected them as the work of one director yet. I remembered it as a cheap Deliverance knockoff, so I wanted to refresh my memory.
The story is a simple one. A squad of Louisiana National Guard are training in the bayou. They aren't the best and brightest; their Sergeant is straight laced, but the boys have some whores lined up for fun after maneuvers, and they want to get done quick. Among them is a loaner from Texas named Hardin, played by Powers Boothe; Fred Ward as a crude loudmouth named Reece, Keith Carradine as a sarcastic self-deprecating smartass named Spencer, and T.K. "Nauls from The Thing" Carter. That gives us some solid character acting on board and a beloved cult director, so let's see how much comfort it gives us for the next two hours.
During training, the lazy fellows are in Cajun country, and have no respect for the swamp folks; Reece calls them coon-asses. He cuts their nets as they wade through the bayou, completely unmindful of the snakes, gators, gar and other critters. They're city boys, and some comparison to the culture clash between Americans and Vietnamese. The Cajuns speak their French patois, live off the land, and just want to be left alone. The Guard boys have blanks for training, and the guy with the M60 likes pranking people with it. When they come upon some pirogues (canoes) and decide to take borrow them as a shortcut, he fires at their rightful owners when they're caught. Problem is, the hunters in the swamp have guns with real ammo, and they fire back.
The soldiers are green and panic, and end up lost in the bayou, with a few bullets each, surrounded by inhospitable territory and people who live in it, who they've made their enemies. Sound familiar? Not long after they regroup and go a little wild, they capture a Cajun trapper played by Brion James. He speaks only French, and his lines are especially funny if you understand a little. He's stoic and laconic, and when they come upon a stringer of 8 dead rabbits- coincidentally the same number of soldiers- they think it's a warning and are creeped out. They demand an answer from him, and he just says, "lapin!" Sonny "Billy from Predator" Landham plays another of the hunters, but doesn't get any lines.
The rest plays out mostly as expected- some men cling to reason and military procedure, others want revenge and grasp for power in the confusion. When they realize they are being hunted, some lose it, and they never come to terms with how dangerous the land alone is, even when it is used against them. We do get to see a more pleasant face of backwoods Cajun life as two of the men come upon a small town and join in a crawfish boil, pig roast and celebration. Unfortunately the story structure is a bit muddled and the ending comes 20 minutes too late. It spends a little too much time whittling down the Guards with clever traps like a slasher film, when it should have stuck to the war film formula. It's still an enjoyable film, in Walter Hill's best pastiche of a Sam Fuller B-movie.
The very end slows as the rescue arrives, but comparing National Guardsmen taking it easy at home in '73 to soldiers in Vietnam running for the medevac chopper is a bit much. I would have loved the festival scene to continue its creepy vibe, where they are unsure if the ropes being strung up are for slaughtering pigs for the feast, or for hanging interloping soldiers. I would have liked them to panic and turn on their hosts, but instead it continues the slasher vibe. Not a great movie, but a good one, and the bayou has never been bleaker. It was filmed on location and Hill's crew suffered in the wet and cold. Ry Cooder's excellent soundtrack, with some traditional Cajun music by Dewey Balfa, helps set the film's excellent tone, which makes the foggy swamp one of the creepiest settings in a long time. Southern Comfort may not be one of Hill's best, but it's definitely an interesting take on the Vietnam metaphor.

3 comments:

Keith said...

Great post. I've heard of it before, but never seen it. Hope you've had a cool weekend.

J.D. said...

I just watched this film again over the weekend and agree with your sentiments. Not great but very good. What struck me was that last bit where Powers Boothe and Keith Carradine are trying to get out of the Cajun village (shanty town?). The tension during that entire sequence is nearly unbearable as you don't know if they're gonna get out and get gutted by their hosts. The editing in this sequence is pretty good as Hill goes back and forth from our heroes to the band playing to the two guys stalking them. Wow...

Plus, any film with Powers Boothe as one of the leads is alright by me.

FilmFather said...

I saw this movie for the first time on HBO when I was 12 and it was hard to shake. The spring-trap of spikes? The Cajuns digging up the bodies of the Guardsmen they've killed? The pig gutting? The knife to the groin? Strong stuff for this then-tween to take in.

Yes, looking at it now, it's a flawed film, but still a highly watchable one. And a great ensemble cast as well.

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