by Matt J. Popham
A box-office flop, thoroughly reviled as a sacrilegious and superfluous remake, as well as a bloated, bombastic object lesson in auteurist excess at the time of its 1977 release, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer has enjoyed a renaissance in the last decade or so, as scores of critics and cinephiles (myself, included) have called for the film to be given a second look and a proper DVD/Blu-Ray release, which it finally received last year. An adrenalized, full-throttle reimagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, Sorcerer is less an existential thriller than an existential nightmare – a riveting, amplified odyssey of fate vs. will, in which Friedkin’s superlative talents for dramatic intensity and visceral impact are given their fullest and, perhaps, best expression. Gritty, grueling, and relentlessly grim, its financial failure and critical crash-and-burn signaled a sea change in cinematic sensibilities. (It must have felt assaultive to audiences who were lining up around the block for repeat viewings of Star Wars…) But after decades collecting dust in near-obscurity, it has finally emerged as one of the last great masterpieces of the New Hollywood era.
In a series of globetrotting prologues, the film takes us from Veracruz, to Jerusalem, to Paris, to New Jersey, introducing us to four career criminals – an assassin (Francisco Rabal), a terrorist (Amidou), a corrupt banker (Bruno Cremer), and an armed robber (Roy Scheider) – right at the moment their luck runs out and fate closes in. After fleeing their respective countries, they find themselves damned to the green hell of Porvenir, a remote, poverty-stricken village in the jungles of Latin America, where the only hope of living is the hope of leaving. The closest thing to civilization is an American oil well, 200 kilometers away, leeching off the land in more ways than one. After the well suffers a catastrophic explosion, our four fugitives are offered a deal with the devil: in exchange for driving two truckloads of dangerously unstable dynamite through the jungle to the disaster site, they will be given a way out: new identities, cash, and passports. That is, if they survive.
Though initially criticized for it, Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green deliberately take their time establishing Sorcerer’s scene and setting, its characters and their circumstances. Before they even set out into the jungle, we acquire a thorough understanding of each man’s individual nature, we experience their shared desperation and desolation, and we learn what each man is capable of, for better and for worse. As they prepare for their journey, we watch them develop an uneasy dynamic, regarding each other with disdain, suspicion, and self-interest, a potentially explosive interpersonal friction added to their already tense and volatile situation. All four actors deliver thorough, internalized, often wordless performances, throughout, fully embodying the plight of hardened men who have found themselves at the end of the world, possibly the end of their lives. They are lived in to the point of being worn out, their battered hopes, fears, regrets, and desires often powerfully communicated through the smallest gestures, flickering across their weathered faces.
White-knuckling their steering wheels, as they push their way through the treacherous terrain, they contend with a series of insurmountable obstacles and lethal perils, confronting each with uncommon resourcefulness and fierce resolve. The trucks move slowly, stop frequently, and there is precious little in the way of dialogue, yet every moment is gripping, harrowing, heart-stopping. Friedkin is a master of rooting his films in a down and dirty realism that can violently erupt into events of almost supernatural extremity. Whether it’s the frenetic, obsession fueled car chase in The French Connection, the ravaging demonic entity in The Exorcist, or the pyromaniacal nihilism that spreads across Los Angeles in To Live and Die in L.A., there is always the suggestion that just beneath the grey and grungy surface of reality is an incomprehensible, unstoppable destructive force waiting to rip through and consume us. In Sorcerer, all of nature becomes perversely malevolent, rising up to thwart these men on their mission: torrential, blinding rains beat down, turning the meagre roads into oozing, squelching flumes of mud; rickety bridges sway and strain over swelling, crashing rivers; trees become twisted, monstrous claws reaching out to grab or obstruct. Friedkin jarringly juxtaposes these hysterical, convulsive bursts with their silent, sober aftermaths, following moments of shadowed darkness with blinding light – a technique he perfected with The Exorcist – keeping us in a perpetual state of breathless uncertainty, as the film descends into an increasingly hallucinogenic unreality. Aside from vividly reflecting our characters’ own besieged mental state – their sanity pushed to the brink as they forge ahead on their trek – these formal strategies also cut right to the infernal heart of the film.
And maybe that’s why the “Me Generation” couldn’t go along for the ride…
Sorcerer is not a redemption story. Our four fugitives’ punishing jungle crossing is not a penance from which they will emerge with their sins forgiven, their souls cleansed. These men have no interest in redemption. They are utterly impenitent. Seen in a spiritual light, their mission is nothing more than a devil’s bargain; and their journey towards the blazing inferno their volatile cargo is meant to extinguish, a furious attempt to climb out of hell. Taken from an ecological angle, they are pawns of corporate oil, hired guns attempting to profit in the war against the planet. (Is it any wonder, then, that the planet fights back so aggressively?) But from a more purely existential perspective, they are simply desperate men who have used up their lives, and the lives of others around them, for personal gain, and are now desperate to escape the resultant ruin. The mission dangles before them their only slight glimmer of hope: a new life, which they will likely not live any better than the first. They push forward relentlessly, almost admirably, defying the merciless forces of fate, but they still exist solely for themselves. (“We’re sitting on double shares!” Scheider gleefully exclaims when it appears two of the others have been killed.) Their mission will not make them better. It will not even make them stronger. It will simply bring them face to face with the hopelessness and futility of their efforts. In a macabre twist on Sisyphus, even if – against all odds – they succeed, we must imagine them failures.