Issuance: 50 years later
John Boorman is captivating and utterly unnerving Issuance is a masterful work of horror that is unabashedly one of the most controversial and provocative films of the 1970s, the blade of which has not been dulled by time. It’s the rare experience that terrifies and sickens, even if it’s not a “horror” movie in the truest sense. Audiences unaware of its wild and brutal journey will unwittingly fall into the line of the four men at its center, falling prey to its picturesque landscape, unaware of the overwhelming and visceral encounters that await. Viewers will desperately want to look away, but in the vein of these men, they’ll find themselves trapped in its sweeping current.
Issuance centers on four so-called town boys on a weekend canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River (a substitute for the Chattanooga River in Georgia) in Appalachia. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the organic leader of the group, believing America’s “system” is going to collapse, he jumps at any chance to hone his survival skills. As the river and its surroundings are about to flood, Lewis takes the other three there for one last adventure. Ed (John Voight) admires Lewis’ bravado and inherent fearlessness, while Drew (Ronny Cox) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) are entertained by the journey, unaware of the dangers that await them downstream. What ensues is a brutal and harsh weekend that completely showcases the global and unforgiving nature of the natural world and man’s most uncivilized instincts.
Right off the bat, the film taps into clever “man versus nature” commentary. As it opens with a voiceover from the ignorant quartet, discussing the intrinsic glory of an untapped wilderness. They soon stumble upon a shoddy house where they fill up on gas, hire someone to drop off their cars, and engage in one hell of a banjo duet.
The “duel of banjos” scene is one of two legendary sequences, and beyond its virtuosity, it also houses excellent thematic subtext. Complementary instruments provide a fleeting moment that bridges the gap between them and these impoverished hillbillies. Yet before they can get anything meaningful out of this encounter, Bobby arrogantly tells Drew to “give him a few bucks.” And they’re headed for a green hell.
The film owes its thematic power and ultimate staying power to Boorman’s stellar direction, as it transforms what could have been a superficial thriller into a deeply human parable. Boorman was part of the first European wave of directors who had a big impact on the style and tone of the “New Hollywood Movement”. Along with Roman Polanski, Milos Forman and John Schlesinger, Boorman produced some of the greatest works of the time, bringing an outsider’s perspective and a bold approach to cinematic technique. His American debut Point Blank used tonal ambiguity, cryptic editing, and expressionistic use of technicolor to vibrantly reimagine film noir. But Issuance is undoubtedly his magnum opus.
Boorman’s “New Hollywood” production explored the ambiguities of American life, illuminating not only its rugged beauty and vibrancy, but also the corruption and depravity that lurk just below the surface. This is expertly and chillingly achieved in the gruesome “Squeal like a pig” scene. It’s one of the most unsettling scenes ever on celluloid, as Voight’s Ed is tied to a tree and forced to watch his friend Bobby get anal fucked by a demented, toothless hillbilly. The scene owes its enduring quality to Boorman’s confident and assured direction, as its implementation of silence speaks volumes, forcing us to stay on every word, gasp and startle scream as each wide shot lasts only a few moments too long.
In addition to Boorman’s great direction, Vilmos Zsigmond’s pastoral and majestic cinematography echoes his masterful work of the previous year. McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As its hovering lens fits firmly and daringly into the wild depravity of this downstream journey. He shot some of the greatest films of that era, and Issuance would not retain its haunting beauty without its graceful composition, which elegantly follows these canoes on their journey to damnation.
Issuance is, in every sense of the word, memorable. He completely shocked audiences in 1972, generating heaps of talk (and money) about his provocative side, and time has only sharpened his blade. It manages to be an utterly terrifying and palpable experience in its terror, while not actually being a prototypical “horror” film. In fact, when you mention the movie in many circles, people will often latch onto its ability to terrify, but never call it a full-fledged horror movie. But this ability to provoke and induce total Fear speaks to its timeless quality, as its visual and thematic splendor knows no bounds. Fifty years later, Issuance always humble, forcing us to realize that it’s not really a man’s world after all.