The Passing of the Dead, Sorcerer (1977, William F’ing Friedkin)
Ya’ll, Sorcerer got screwed.
Not just because it was released the same month as some Star War thingy, but because William Friedkin had come up against one of the most dangerous forces a filmmaker can deal with: other people’s expectations.
When Willy F conceived of Sorcerer, he was coming off the success of what many consider to be the greatest horror movie of all time, a little flight of fancy called The Exorcist. The problem was, it was TOO good. And when you’re too good at something, people start thinking that’s either all you can do or are supposed to do.
So when the title dropped, people thought Friedkin was going back to the supernatural well. Instead, he turned out a thoughtful and terrifying meditation on Fate and the meaning of existence, with nary a demon or devil in sight except the ones the four protagonists bring with them to the damaged South American village of Porvenir, a place where men go to die in our world and be born anew.
It’s a gorgeous film.
An oil field explodes, forcing four men who are running from their sins and themselves to team up to transport dynamite over 200 miles through the South American jungle in order to implode the field and stop the fire. Sounds simple, yes? Except the dynamite is ancient and sweating nitroglycerin. Death awaits every bump on the road, every sway of a bridge. The transport is harrowing to watch, full of anger and rawness as these four men finally make the choice to follow where fate has led them. If they don’t come back alive, they don’t come back the same.
But it’s the scene immediately following the explosion that grabbed me and hasn’t let go.
A riot has broken out on the streets of Porvenir as a truck carrying the bodies of those who perished in the explosion moves into the center of town. People are angry that so many lives have been lost to the oil company’s greed. And then the sound drops out as the first corpse is lifted off the truck. In utter silence we see the crowd lifting the bodies, passing them overhead to a proper resting place. We hear rising sobs, the keening of women, the wailing for the souls of the dead.
For that moment, time stands still. Sound returns, as does the anger.
For that moment, we ARE Porvenir. Friedkin made the choice to put the camera firmly in the middle of the sea of humanity that surrounds the truck, and we are immersed. We feel every bit of anguish because we are forced to look at it. The scene is beautiful and unflinching and uncomfortable. And then the riot resumes, and the terror of being trapped in an out-of-control crowd returns. The camera escapes, but only barely. We realize then that no one is safe in this world.
No one is ever safe, and the ones who return?
…well, Fate has her own ideas.