After the extended prologue, when Ry Cooder’s swampy blues riff slides in over a glorious widescreen shot of the Louisiana bayou, you know you’re watching a classic of its kind.
To this day, co-writer/director Walter Hill claims that the superb ‘Southern Comfort’ doesn’t directly allude to the Vietnam War, but it’s hard to conclude otherwise – set in 1973, his film concerns a motley group of weekend National Guardsmen whose sojourn into Cajun country (with the promise of prostitutes at the end of the road) turns into a desperate fight for survival when a foolish prank leaves them at the mercy of some particularly vengeful locals.
Hill prefers to call it a ‘displaced Western’, a film about escalating moral dilemmas in unfamiliar surroundings. That rings true too, but watching it again after ten years or so, I couldn’t help comparing it to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, another all-male classic about creeping, self-defeating paranoia, fudged leadership and dodgy group-think. ‘Southern Comfort’ might also be described as ‘The Warriors’ meets ‘Deliverance’. It’s that good.
This is a pre-irony, pre-CGI action movie, where men are men (the sort of men who might get a ‘phone call in a pub….on a landline’), decisions have consequences and vengeance is swift and fairly brutal. The action sequences are gripping, though never tawdry, and look extremely punishing for the cast – there’s a particularly realistic dog attack and a memorable quicksand incident. Apparently the shoot was long, cold and difficult, with camera tripods frequently sinking into the bayou.
The dialogue is fast and loose – the brain has to be in gear to pick up all the political/ethical nuances that fly by – and the acting styles deceptively ‘naturalistic’. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe are superb as the reluctant heroes who must overcome their basically apolitical stances to become men of action and moral choice. Carradine in particular makes for a fascinating action-man (according to Hill, his character is a ‘Southern aristocrat’). The secondary cast of mainly unknowns (the ever-excellent Peter Coyote aside) is also superb.
But ‘Southern Comfort’ was a commercial dud on its 1981 release. Maybe, like ‘The Thing’, it’s far too stark a vision. But it certainly it spawned some new movie clichés and looks like an influence on many ’80s movies from ‘Aliens’ to ‘Predator’. It’s also a fascinating watch these days considering the state of the US – the film’s message seems to be that peace is impossible while there remain so many internal divisions and prejudices.