(Walter Hill, 1981)
Southern Comfort may just be Walter Hill's most acute and perfect film.
By the time he directed it, he had enjoyed a lot of critical and commercial success. Indeed, he was on a run of high quality few directors get to experience in an entire career - from The Streetfighter/Hard Times in 1975, through The Driver and The Warriors in '78 and '79, to the beautiful The Long Riders in 1980. That last film, Hill's first Western, indicated that he had perfected his voice; it is a little arty in its use of genre, elliptical plotting and Hill's embrace of slow-motion as an almost abstract method for filming action. And yet it is accessible - full of action set-pieces, funny, and with a little romance too. Hill made films which could appeal to a mainstream audience and a cineaste at the same time, which explains his enduring popularity with critics.
That success may explain how audacious Southern Comfort is. Hill had the confidence to make it perhaps his starkest film, with a stripped-down approach taken to the setting and characterisation. The back story is dealt with in the fantastically economical opening scene, which also establishes every character in five minutes or so. We are following a troop of Louisiana National Guardsmen on a training exercise in the Bayou. They are a disparate group of personalities, including a few quiet, suburban middle-class types with respectable jobs, a couple of gung ho hillbillies, some ex-Army men who take it all more seriously than the others, and a few loners, only there because they absolutely have to be. In the early stages of a long march through the swamp they steal (they assure themselves its borrowing) some boats they come across. When the men they presume to be the owners of the boats appear on the shore, one of the men shoots at them. The men on the shore - cajun hunters - dive for cover, and then return fire, not understanding that these National Guardsmen are armed only with blanks. A bullet kills the commanding Officer of the National Guard, and the others flee terrified into the bayou. Thus begins a long slow hunt as the group is whittled down by the hunters, by nature and by internal conflict until only a handful remain, desperately clinging to life as they attempt to escape the swampland.
Placing his characters in such an extreme situation allows Hill to test and define them the way he likes - through action. Some panic, a few wilt and one or two snap. The genuine heroes are the ones who keep thinking, who keep their heads. All of this is demonstrated in tight, convincingly fraught dialogue exchanges and some intense action sequences. The heroes who emerge are Spencer (Keith Carradine) a cynical, urban wiseass, and Hardin (Powers Boothe), a new Texan transfer into the squad who is disgusted by the arrogance and stupidity of his comrades even before their ordeal begins. Among the weak links are a terrific Fred Ward as Reece, an aggressive hillbilly who relishes the opportunity for violence the situation provides him, and Alun Autry as Bowden, an uptight High School football Coach who is seemingly driven mad by events.
The way the men turn on one another, the way the chain of command proves ineffective in such a situation, and the way their characters reveal themselves are all neatly executed by Hill and a cast filled with great character actor faces. Action films with such solid characterisation and tight plotting have always been rare, and Hill allies that with his customary action filmmaking - the attacks and fights here are brutal yet elegantly composed, the logic behind each shot and cut clear and beautifully crisp.
Boothe and Carradine offer one of the most interesting buddy-relationships ever seen in this genre; they barely like one another, yet the gradual growth of respect between them is tellingly, convincingly played, and each is excellent in his role.
Southern Comfort offers more than all I have described; Hill's film presents an obvious (though never overstated) allegory for Vietnam, artfully underlined in the final freeze-frame. It is also, for long stretches, a beautiful piece of pure cinema. Andrew Laszlo's cinematography offers a rich symphony of browns and greens throughout, and plays with the light thrown by the murky swamp water and the dulled skies glimpsed through the branches above. Through this the men, themselves in dull green, trudge, making the sudden appearance of civilization in the form of a Cajun village in the last act feel like a moment of alien contact in a sci-fi film. This is all soundtracked by Hill's most frequent collaborator, Ry Cooder, whose atmospheric slide guitar score could not be better.