Sorcerer September 26, 2016
They have nothing to lose. They’re respectable crooks, sure, but a pay day is a pay day and this is an offer they’d be wise not to refuse. The job individually presented to them involves the transportation of highly sensitive nitroglycerin. Lots of it, in fact. The transportation of that said lots, unfortunately, is through the treacherous terrains of the mountains and jungles of rural South America. It’s a surefire suicide mission, considering the “road” to the final destination is unapologetically paved alongside unforgiving (and unprotected) cliffs, is shamefully dependent on almost comedically rotting bridges hanging over troubled waters, and is unafraid to travel through tangles of trees and roots better to be left untamed than fought. But the fee to deliver the goods is a tempting combination of legal citizenship and an additional monetary reward somewhere upward of $10,000 — a bargain — and the men willing to put their lives at risk for a good payout are at too low of points in their life to decline.
They are Jackie (Roy Scheider), an American delinquent caught at the tail end of a robbery he severely botches, Victor (Bruno Cremer), a corrupted French entrepreneur whose most recent financial scheme has driven his business partner to suicide, Kassem (Amidou), a young Arabic terrorist living the aftermath of an escape from captivity, and Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a career criminal with a mean streak. Personalities clash instantaneously, as expected. But as these men are forced to fight through the hell that is the South American landscape, respect becomes mutual and making it to the end of the road turns into a mission so pivotal they’d rather die than go back.
Originally formulated as a side project for William Friedkin, then still a hot Hollywood commodity after the unparalleled success of 1973’s The Exorcist, Sorcerer, in itself an adaptation of George Arnaud’s Le Salaire de la peur, was a critical and commercial disappointment upon release in 1977. Whether its inability to find a welcoming audience in the year of its theatrical run was due to high expectations on the part of Friedkin or the coinciding culture redefiner that was Star Wars remains to be debatable, but warped is the perception surrounding it. Some thirty-nine years ago, it was a flop. But come 2016, a wide majority considers it to be a lost masterpiece deserving of rediscovery, a forgotten classic to be remembered.
It is a challenging film, a psychological exploration of the limits of physical and mental endurance and a spirit dampener in its firm belief that the hands of fate are near sociopathic in how and what they throw at their victims of circumstance and bad karma. And yet I’m convinced that it is Friedkin’s magnum opus. It’s a grand statement of artistic maximalism and boundary pushing thematics that at once make it intellectually dense and effortlessly thrilling.
The building up to the climax that is its entire last act is perhaps punishingly understated — we’d swear we were in the midst of a cryptic character study if we weren’t so certain that cathartic release weren’t also waiting in the wings — but once the journey begins and this band of morally ambivalent outsiders push themselves to the perimeters of their stamina, Sorcerer proves itself to not just be great filmmaking. It also boasts the all-too-rare luster that penetrates the patina of such epics as Ben-Hur and War and Peace. Stendhal Syndrome inducing greatness inflames our senses; this is How Did They Make This filmmaking of the finest degree.
And watching these actors cogently portray men pushed to their unique brinks — made all the more harrowing as a result of Friedkin’s throwing a vast amount of varying extremes at them — is as electrifying as the latter’s overarching vision of cinematic torment. Scheider is very much in the same vein as Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre — a grizzly anti-hero inherently bad yet somehow offhandedly charismatic. Rabal is a frightening villain to be turned into a pathetic figure of destiny, Cremer is a scoundrel never given the chance to redeem himself, and Amidou is a weasel that seems to mature decades as he goes through the motions of thorough physiological horror.
But perhaps we age decades during the watching of Sorcerer, too: this is a film that decidedly figures that we live in a world that would rather watch us suffer than prosper, and Friedkin’s daring delivery of that notion through existential despair and surprisingly accessible suspense is riveting. Sorcerer is a movie still desperately searching for an audience, but for those that dive into its darkest depths will find that the journey, however introductorily heavy it may seem, is an intoxicating experience. A