There Is No Joy In Mudville: William Friedkin’s Bleak Classic, “Sorcerer (1977)”

Despite the wicked title, there is nothing demonic or paranormal about William Friedkin’s 1977 film, Sorcerer. Instead, the viewer is transported to a humid realm of sweat and dirt. Unending fire and greasy machines. The sense that it has always just stopped raining, but the deluge did nothing to cool things off outside. The heavy dark smell of impending doom gathers like ground mist in that room in your brain where your mental bookie scrawls hashmarks with a gnawed pencil in the column labeled “impossible odds.” In Sorcerer, joy is small and hard to find, much less keep, for any length of time.

In the squalid Colombian village of Porvenir, four criminals on the lam exist under assumed identities. Most villagers work for an American oil company, but the money isn’t enough for the four men to emigrate to a better locale. When an oil well explodes, company executives decide the only way to douse the raging fire is to use explosives. The four men agree to deliver the dynamite, which is in poor condition and leaking nitroglycerin, to the site of the fire. In order to accomplish this, the men must take two cargo trucks filled with the explosive through dangerous jungle terrain, including rickety wooden bridges, failing mud roads, and other obstacles. In return, they will be paid enough money to buy their way out of Porvenir.

Roy Scheider gives the finest performance of his career as Jackie Scanlon, a New Jersey hood who finds himself in Porvenir after a robbery gone bad. There’s a price on Scanlon’s head and Porvenir seems like the best place to lay low. Even in terrible conditions and faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, Scanlon steps up into a leadership role. He becomes the driver of one of the trucks. It isn’t a job Scanlon wants, but its the only way to leave the hellhole that has drained his humanity and made him nothing more than a sentient husk.

Scheider, with his sallow eyes and single-minded desire to get the hell out of Colombia, centers Sorcerer. He becomes a pure embodiment of Scanlon’s frustration, relatable but alarming. Scheider was able to communicate more with a grunt than most actors can with an entire monologue. It’s a harrowing piece of acting and it is damned near impossible to look away from his sweaty, pitiable face.

The true star of Sorcerer, however, is Nature. Look, I tell you as I purposely break the fourth wall, there are scenes in this movie that will make their way into your nightmares. I don’t know how they filmed the set pieces. Imagine being on a wooden bridge (think of that rickety thing Mola Ram fell from in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but far worse) with a truck packed with unstable explosives. The planks are falling out from beneath the heavy tires while the river beneath you is flooding, raging. One wrong move, one flick of the wrist in the wrong direction, and you, your partner, and everything around you blows up.

That specific sequence is a true nail-biter. The tension is thick enough to make you gnaw the skin from your knuckle. Sorcerer rarely becomes any calmer as the men make the 200-mile trek to the blazing oil refinery. If you or someone you know frequently experiences episodes of road rage, Sorcerer may not be right for you.

Director Friedkin was on a roll in the early 1970s. His 1971 crime drama, The French Connection, scored eight Academy Award nominations and won five, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Gene Hackman’s manic portrayal of officer Popeye Doyle, and a Best Director nod for Friedkin.

Two years later, Friedkin changed the horror genre forever with The Exorcist. The demonic possession film was so frightening, so out of left field for the time, that people fainted during screenings and had to be carried out of the theater by mortified dates and hapless ushers. Although it lost to the nostalgia and charm of The Sting, The Exorcist was the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.

In 1977, Sorcerer hit the big screen with a resounding splat. Critically lambasted and overshadowed by the release of Star Wars, the film only pulled in about $15 million all told. Space movies helped turn the tide away from the bleakness that had pervaded movies of that decade, but it is not inaccurate to say that Sorcerer deserved a wider audience with keener eyes.

Watching it in the 21st century, one can see how Sorcerer was one of the final massive blasts of cinematic cynicism of the 1970s. It is an existential fever dream, a sociological microcosm, a chilling dissertation on fate, destiny, and futility. It’s a heavy movie, all red eyes and tequila shots.

When the next gloomy Saturday rolls around, and you’re not in the mood to watch the Star Wars Marathon on basic cable for the umpteenth time, have a copy of Sorcerer at the ready. It will blow your mind while it slices your hamstrings, leaving an indelible black mark on your spirit.

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