The MovieSouthern Comfort, director Walter Hill's unflinching tale of men under pressure, has finally been deemed worthy enough for release on Blu-ray. The setup is almost ridiculously simple: take a squad of Louisana National Guardsmen on an exercise in the bayou, factor in, ah, a 'misunderstanding' with the Cajun locals and watch the resultant chaos as the soldier boys get picked off one by one. The film positively oozes with the dirt and grime of the swamp, the dank locations adding a palpable feeling of isolation and latent menace. And Ry Cooder's evocative score - brooding guitars mixed with exotic flutes - is used sparingly, neither overwhelming the drama nor wearing out its welcome.
Powers Boothe leads the line as Hardin, a last minute transfer to the squad whose pragmatic nature is contrasted by the jokier attitude of Keith Carradine's Spencer. A more hot-headed presence is provided by Fred Ward as Reese, joined by Lewis Smith's trigger-happy Stuckey. Their C.O., Staff Sgt. Poole, is played by Peter Coyote displaying his usual understated class, and Les Lannom is Sgt. Caspar, his rule-bound subordinate. Alan Autrey (credited as Carlos Brown) is nicely unhinged as "Coach" Bowden. Franklyn Seales is good value as the pessimistic Simms, and T.K. Carter presents the the dry comic relief as Cribbs. Brion James rounds off the ensemble as a captured trapper who represents the face of the otherwise unseen threat of the disgruntled natives.
The film is typically muscular in terms of Hill's direction. The dysfunctional characters are a hard bunch to like, their squabbles punctuated by short bursts of savage violence which pare down the squad until we're left with the least arseholic members of the group. The director has never been one for grand political statements; he refuses to even entertain the notion that Southern Comfort is about America's foray into Indochina. The connection is not without merit, what with the story consisting of an ill-prepared military unit battling to survive in an alien environment, as they're stalked by a faceless enemy that's dug in like an Alabama tick. (Fans of another notable 'military men vs invisible terror' movie should get that reference.)
But it's almost too obvious an allegory, and if you look beneath the superficial similarities there are far stronger ties with Hill's gaudy street-fighting classic The Warriors. Both films feature a group of men deep in enemy territory fighting to get to safety, drawing on classical Greek history for the basic premise and using a more modern locale as a framing device. And yet, for all of Hill's predilection for reinterpreting ancient tales, his movies are primarily character driven, often examining people who've been riven by conflict (be it internal and/or external).
The director's fascination with what he calls the 'will he live or will he die' rule of drama is borne out through his oft-used motifs of men in battle and the moral uncertainty of his protagonists, themes which are not exclusive to any period of history, thus further distancing these films from the charge of being mere metaphors for contemporary issues. As such, Southern Comfort fits into Hill's oeuvre rather well. Heck, it may be the archetypal Walter Hill movie, even though it's not his most well known, and it gets a resounding thumbs up from me.
The DiscSecond Sight’s region B locked Blu-ray presents Southern Comfort in its theatrical 1.85 widescreen ratio, encoded with AVC. It looks exactly as I expected it to: ugly. Grain is ever-present, becoming coarser during the opticals and the night scenes, as well it should. The compression loses a bit of finesse in the busier scenes that are full of rain or smoke, but it's not a major problem. Dirt and scratches are visible throughout, and there's some blatant telecine wobble here and there.
Colour is a relentlessly dull collage of greys and greens and browns, with fleshtones erring on the warmer side. Fine detail is surprisingly strong given the dirtied-down nature of the shoot, and there's been no attempt to jazz it up with overt edge enhancement. Contrast is also respectable, the darker moments holding some decent shadow detail with fairly solid blacks. Realistically, we couldn’t have asked for much more than this.
The PCM 2.0 audio is straight-up mono, as per the original theatrical release, and it’s pretty much the aural equivalent of the grungy picture. It sounds harsh and constrained, as the dialogue is often muffled and the stock gunshot effects sound little better than wet farts. The track does have some degree of low end, the bass not doing anything spectacular but it provides some backbone to the music.
The score is still very congested though, and the Cajun dance at the end of the film is almost uncomfortable to listen to because it's just a raw melange of sounds (heck, maybe that was the point). This is not a pleasurable experience, but, as with the picture, the shortcomings are not the fault of the encoding, it’s simply the source presented as transparently as possible.
There's only one extra, but it's a good 'un. Will He Live or Will He Die is a new 44-minute interview (in 1080i50 HD) with Walter Hill, where the film is broken down into several components and he gives his thoughts on those elements. Hill's answers are thoughtful and intelligent, revealing a fair amount of information about the film and his directorial sensibilities in general. (N.B. The documentary has been mastered with the brightness far too high, the blown-out background behind Hill resembling a lagoon of white-hot magma, and the clips of the film look very pasty and washed-out.)