Hot off the heels of The French Connection and The Exorcist, William Friedkin was touted as one of the greatest minds working in the directing business. His gritty, disturbing adult visions had earned him round-the-block flocks of paying customers; holding their breaths, screaming, and even fainting to the beat of his idiosyncratic shock-masterpieces. Carte blanche, in a personal frenzy of location-scouting, troubled production, and ridiculous ambition, Friedkin remade Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear into Sorcerer – a film he believed was a genuine masterpiece. Some have even gone to suggest that the cast and crew felt they were creating the best film ever made.
And yet, you probably haven’t even heard of it. So what happened? Whether it was the almost sacrilegious notion of remaking a Clouzot picture, the misleading title (there’s nothing supernatural here), or critical tastes at the time, Sorcerer was absolutely panned. And it was in direct competition with a little-known film called Star Wars. So yeah, the movie tanked: it failed to make up its gigantic budget, and is often cited as a death-knell for the New Hollywood movement.
Yet, since 1977, it’s gained a cult following, and has just been re-released in cinemas alongside a new BluRay remaster. Sorcerer circulates around four men who find themselves trapped in a shoddy village in Latin America, working for a shady oil company. They’re all looking for a way out, but the low wages and remote location mean that saving for years on end is the only option – until the oil well blows and kicks off a raging inferno that the company can’t put out with water alone. The only option is to blow the well sky-high with dynamite – but there’s a problem: said dynamite is a) 200 miles away from the well, and b) incredibly unstable. The sticks haven’t been turned, against procedure, and as such the nitroglycerin has leaked into the bottom of the crates: the very slightest vibration could cause them to explode. No pilot will agree to take the job, so the task must fall to four borderline suicidal drivers to transport the cargo in trucks which they’ve had to bolt together themselves with scrap. Our men, surprise surprise, take the job.
Friedkin takes his time to set up this plot. A lot of time. In fact, a whole hour of the two-hour runtime is dedicated to doing so: half an hour comprising of four viginettes detailing how our antiheroes made it to the desolate outpost, and half an hour chronicling the events which lead up to the truck journey. At times, these scenes can be pretty tough to get through: they’re unconnected, it’s not always clear who we’re supposed to be watching or who is getting away, and all in all (especially at first) they’re pretty pointless. This structure also means that we soon forget the faces and identities of most of the main characters anyway. It also doesn’t help that the whole thing is relentlessly depressing: gritty, violent, gory, and bleak in typical Friedkin fashion. It’s skilful filmmaking, but not an easy ride for audiences. That said, when the journey gets going, it really gets going.
I was wrong to ever doubt Friedkin: Sorcerer soon becomes the real deal as soon as the men enter the trucks. This is like 4D without glasses: the cinematic equivalent of watching Mad Max while Max punches the living shit out of you, jumps up and down on your bruised body, then spits on your wounds. It’s one of the most assaultive, brutal, textured evocations of real peril I’ve seen. We’re pummelled, soaked, covered in mud, and blown up: not watching four men drive hulking homemade trucks over delicate, thin cliff-edge so much as actually sitting in the cab with them, clutching our armrests for sheer safety.
Two of the most stunning sequences of sustained, unbearable tension you will ever see are contained within. One takes place on a swinging rope bridge over a gushing river in violent rain, as the bulging trucks dangerously tilt from side to side and the passengers try not to fall into the raging waters. The other involves efforts to blow up a giant tree blocking the path of the trucks, which of course entails the removal of the highly unstable dynamite from its casing. Each of these scenes lasts at least 10–20 minutes, and are brutally tense throughout: at times I genuinely needed to remind myself to breathe, and by the end my nails were bitten down to the quick. But even aside from these extended scenes of peril, there are so many breathtaking moments in Sorcerer: trucks edging along cliffs, messy car crashes, insane slow-motion explosions, and multiple gasp-inducing scenes where a sudden jerk causes the boxes of dynamite to slightly shift in their sand.
It also helps that the film works as a deeply pessimistic treatise on global relations. Here are four disparate, uncaring men, forced to work together, otherwise they will literally explode (sound familiar?). And Friedkin isn’t afraid to layer on the darkness: he toys with us, making us sympathise with people then killing them off with the wave of a hand, subjecting us to one of the most gruelling hallucination scenes in cinematic memory.
It’s a largely dialogue-less affair: Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack is an absolute masterpiece of menacing Carpenter synths, brooding tones, and refreshing minimalism that allows the grinding gears and vicious natural terror of Friedkin’s brutal realism to shine through whilst underlining the peril of the situation. The cinematography is a marvel: at times, the shimmering multicolour of Apocalypse Now shows its face; but, mostly, the action is obscured by a violent hail of weather. The bridge scene in particular is one in which the audience can barely make out what is going on through the sheer volume of water falling from the sky, but the overall effect is one of exhaustion: we feel as drenched and violated as our protagonists.
Sorcerer is an hour long, balls-to-the-wall ordeal: a blood-splattered, rain-slashed, wind-swept orgy of muscular action and brutal tension. A pessimistic, misanthropic, and horrific treatise on world politics and humanity wrapped into a ball of mud and shit and thrown directly at the audience. Yet, to get there, you have to slog up a mountain of unnecessary exposition with a heavy backpack filled with confusion and disorientation. The end result is exhausting, surprising, and far better than its source material. A cinematic experience of the highest order, if you’re willing to endure the ride.
Featured image: TimeOut.