Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions — I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s admittedly a stretch as it’s well known enough and most critics count themselves as fans, but it came to mind recently for another reason all together. The great Powers Boothe passed away last week, and among his many memorable performances in films like Tombstone and Frailty or television shows such as Deadwood sits a pair of movies with director Walter Hill. 1987’s Extreme Prejudice pits Boothe against Nick Nolte as a rough and tumble villain, but it’s the earlier film that gave him both his first co-lead role and what would become a rarity in his career, the opportunity to play the hero.
Southern Comfort takes place in the swamps of Louisiana in 1973, and it wastes no time on unnecessary setup. We’re introduced in quick order to a small group of National Guardsman heading into the wet woods on a weekend assignment, and before the opening credits have completed we’ve been told all we really need to know about each of them. Poole (Peter Coyote) and Casper (Les Lannom) are first and second in command, Reece (Fred Ward) is an aggressive wildcard, Stuckey (Lewis Smith) is a dimwit, Bowden (Alan Autry) is overly eager to the point of imbalance, and both Cribbs (TK Carter) and Simms (Franklyn Seales) are left wondering what they’ve done to deserve landing them in the middle of a swamp with a bunch of gung-ho white guys.
Standing apart from the fodder are two guardsmen, neither of whom are any more invested in their service than the rest of the gang. Spencer (Keith Carradine) is a likable wise-cracker whose promise of having arranged “ladies of the evening” for the weekend’s end leaves most of the men raring to go, while Hardin (Boothe) is the somewhat reluctant newcomer to the group. We get no great depth from any of the men, but each of their characters is made clear as efficiently as possible, and within just a few minutes the film’s simple and straightforward tale of survival explodes to life.
Lost after only a few hours in the swamps, they make the unwise decision of “borrowing” some boats they come across, and their foolishness is compounded when the crafts’ owners gather on the shoreline in silence. Rather than show a collective respect and words of apology, Stuckey fires off a burst of fire from his machine gun towards the men. They’re blanks – all of the guardsmen have been been issued the non-lethal ammo – but the men on the shore don’t take kindly to the act. One shot later and Poole’s head pops open from a rifle round sending the weekend warriors into panic mode and into the water.
From that point forward the film is a brutal tale of survival as the remaining men display both a misguided need for vengeance and a desperate desire for escape. A series of deaths follow as a result of guns, knives, spiked booby traps, and nature itself, and along the way the various character types clash and bond in expected and unexpected ways.
Testosterone and idiocy fuel behavior that leads to a few early demises while pure bad luck ends in a few others, but through the carnage Spencer and Hardin distinguish themselves as men who plan on surviving the weekend and getting back to their dull, every day lives. The latter, having already made his distaste for the Louisiana Guard, its members, and this unpleasant swamp known makes a promise to himself and the wife he has waiting for him back in Texas. “I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but I’m gonna fight my way out of here.”
He and Spencer are the clear lead protagonists here, and it’s in their character baskets in which viewers will rest their eggs of interest and investment. They display common sense and reason even as the humid air around them fills with blood. Typically it would be a toss up between the two fast friends as to which would survive to see the outside the world again, but while Hill’s script (co-written by Michael Kane and David Giler) offers up some stereotypical fodder to the genre movie gods in the form of the rest of the unit Hardin and Spencer feel different. A respect grows between them, one built on attitude, intelligence, and a sense of humor, and even under the duress of a fast-moving action script the pair become fully-formed friends before our eyes. Credit for that is due to Hill’s camera and to the performances of both Boothe and Carradine, but it adds the pleasure of a “buddy” picture into the confines of a survival thriller.
Both characters capture our desire to see them survive, but Boothe’s Hardin is a special kind of joy. He begins the film already regretting the life decisions that have landed him here but grows increasingly angrier and more pissed off as the events unfold. Hardin is a man with a wife and a life back home, and he has little patience for the immaturity and recklessness on display from the others. His growing disgust with their antics leads to altercations both verbal and physical, and Boothe displays the cold, seemingly impossible mix of intensity and laid back demeanor that would become his trademark.
The swamp fills the screen with its beauty and possibility, but Hill and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (who would return to a different wild a year later with First Blood) also ensure its menace grows before our eyes. Even in daylight the place becomes one of unease and insecurity as the possibility of death awaits around each turn and armed shadows move between the trees. The daytime nightmare is aided by the sounds of Ry Cooder‘s score adding to both the atmosphere and energy.
The only “bad guy” we meet really is a one-armed trapped (the always great Brion James) as the rest remain mostly faceless until the film’s third act. They’re given neither personalities nor backstories and instead become an amorphous enemy like the Indians of old westerns or interchangeable German and Japanese soldiers of World War II epics. That approach though is given a suspenseful spin late in the film when Hardin and Spencer arrive to the relative safety of a local community get-together. Families and children party and eat while the two men suspect their enemy hides in plain site, and the scene builds some strong suspense before erupting in more violence.
Southern Comfort remains an immensely satisfying and entertaining tale of survival despite its relative simplicity. Deadly threats and disposable characters are the norm, but we’re given the unusual bounty of two likable protagonists brought to life by talented, charismatic performers. I remember reading somewhere that the freeze-frame ending is meant to suggest an uncertainty as to the outcome – I can’t recall where though and may have made that up – but even if true it feels like just one more surmountable bump on the road to Hardin and Spencer’s friendship and the long lives they have ahead. I would have welcomed more pairings between Boothe and Carradine (Deadwood almost counts), but I’ll settle for their weekend together in the swamps of Louisiana.
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Buy Southern Comfort on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.
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