Movie Review : Sorcerer (1977)
* a suggestion from Jonathan Bravard *
French author George Arnaud had no idea. He couldn't possibly know his novel The Wages of Fear would not only become a literary classic, but spawn two movie adaptations over a twenty-four year span that would become classics of their own. Few people have seen William Friedkin's 1977 adaptation of Arnaud's novel titled Sorcerer because it was released exactly four weeks after the original Star Wars, which would be a tragedy if the film had been forgotten. Not only Sorcerer lives up to Friedkin's reputation of being one of Hollywood's most intense direction in every possible way, but it might be one of his smartest, most compelling movies. It was remastered and released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2014, so the legacy of George Arnaud is still going strong half a century later. How could he possibly know, right?
Now, let's talk about that beautiful William Friedkin adaptation....
The prologue of Sorcerer introduces Nilo (Francisco Rabal), who shoots a man down in Vera Cruz without explanation; Kassem (Amidou), a Palestinian terrorist on the run after setting off a bomb in Jerusalem; Victor (Bruno Cremer), a businessman prosecuted for fraud in France and Jackie (the immortal Roy Scheider), a two-bit gangster who robbed the wrong people in New Jersey. The four man find themselves stranded in a dirt poor South American country exploited by an American oil company with little hope of getting out. When a mysterious explosion sets the rig ablaze, the companions of misfortune are selected to carry an enormous amount of nitroglycerin through 200 miles of South American jungle because they are expendable. If they make it through, they'll save their town's economy and be heroes. If they don't, they'll be dead and nobody will miss them.
There is an unequivocal charm to William Friedkin movies. They speak the universal language of mainstream movies like Eminem speaks English. Themes are similar, but they're expressed in a unique and sophisticated way. In Sorcerer, Friedkin establishes four character stereotypes: a hired killer, a terrorist, a corporate scammer and a hoodlum. They don't ever really change throughout the movie, but the circumstance they're in do and the way Friedkin films these circumstances is fascinating. For example, during a shootout scene in Jerusalem he chose to film the muzzle flash of a rifle instead of the victim flailing down. It's a weird detail but it multiplies the violence of the scene because you're given the perspective of the person facing the rifle. So, in Sorcerer, you don't exactly bond with the characters through their charming personalities, but through their experiences.
So, the movie is called Sorcerer but it's an adaptation of George Arnaud's The Wages of Fear without any magic in it. What the fuck, right? Sorcerer is the name of one of the two trucks and, according to William Friedkin himself, the vehicle that'll allow them to cheat fate. The real theme of the movie is self-determination. In the Victor prologue segment, his wife reads him a story about a French soldier unsure whether or not to gun down a seemingly innocent civilian and Victor draws conclusion on the soldier based on the story. His wife answers him that you can't judge anyone based on a single occurrence, which is very important to the movie. It's not a coincidence or a writing flaw if the four protagonists of Sorcerer are crude stereotypes. The point of isolating them in a setting cut from anything that constructed their personality was to make a point: identity is a social construct and there's no limit to what you can do if you strip it down. In many ways, Sorcerer functions like a war movie.
Movies like Sorcerer are a dying breed. The initial box office failure due to unfortunate release schedule timing are the best indication of that. Star Wars ushered a new era in filmmaking which left smaller movies with strong artistic vision like Sorcerer to a niche market. There will always be a place in mainstream culture for creators like William Friedkin, though. For people who can tell captivating stories with Hollywood burnouts, chump change and a couple rolls of duct tape. I didn't even know Sorcerer existed a month ago, but it was a life-affirming viewing for me. There still are people who are better at telling stories than everybody else and that don't get swept away by Hollywood's strong arms tactics. Keep doing your thing, William Friedkin, you're OG.