Recently, director William Friedkin passed away. He was one of many young, ambitious directors of the 60s and 70s that brought in the “New Hollywood” era after the studio decay of the 50s. This period was marked by many films that pushed the boundaries of mainstream movies through modern and ambitious works that dominated the industry for a good length of time. For Freidkin, his most famous accomplishments in this era were The French Connection, which he won Oscars for, and The Exorcist, one of the greatest horror films ever and one of the few to get prestige acclaim at the time. However, with the recent news, I looked into his filmography and saw something that piqued my curiosity. A film simply titled Sorcerer with a poster of a truck in a rainstorm crossing a rickety bridge. I had not even heard of this movie before so I figured it wouldn’t be a bad use of my afternoon to watch it. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was something far more fascinating and compelling than one would expect.

From the title and knowing that it came from the Exorcist director, one would assume it’s just another horror movie. However, the film has nothing to do with magic and is a gritty, realistic thriller in the Columbian jungle. It follows four men: a Palestinian militant, a French investment banker, an Irish-American gangster, and a Mexican assassin. The first three are there since they had to flee their own countries and go into hiding while the fourth forces his way into the situation due to unknown motives. When an American own oil well explodes and is set on fire, they are tasked with transporting a few boxes of dynamite through the jungle in trucks. However, the dynamite was poorly stored and is leaking nitroglycerin meaning that any strong movement could set them off. Even a stuck tire poses a huge threat to the transport and could mean life or death if one wrong choice is made which is compounded by the obstacles the jungle throws out.

Normally, a film with a structure like this would focus on the development of the characters and their comradery. Giving them connections and having them grow a bond alongside their struggles. But Sorcerer isn’t that kind of film. Instead, it’s very matter-of-fact. Most of the interactions are done out of obligation to survive and you see the characters go at each other consistently. When they accomplish a task, there is no celebration, just relief and quick momentum to try and keep going. While some might feel like the lack of character would make the film dull, I think that it makes the film more compelling. Given the setup, the focus being more on the journey exacerbates the tension higher, and each set piece, whether extreme or slow, is invigorating. It also allows for Friedkin’s direction to take center stage and he takes the opportunity to show the danger and stress of this journey as much as possible. The staging makes the tension palpable and the desolation of the setting feels ever-present.

This is all punctuated with the score by the band Tangerine Dream. While one would assume a synth score for a film set in the jungle would be misplaced, it contributes to the unsettling tone and weirdly enhances simple scenarios. The sequence of the characters choosing and fixing up their trucks being underscored by droning music makes it a more compelling set piece and creates a sense of foreboding before the journey starts. The film also knows when to place music and chooses a lot of the time to let silence and imagery carry a scene whether it be the bridge cross in the storm or when the group comes across a giant tree blocking their path and slowly tries to find a way to move forward.

Moreover, it’s clear that the intent of the film is its aggressive tone. The characters are not shown to be very sympathetic due to their past actions being mostly morally wrong and violent and how they interact with others and with each other in certain scenarios. The scenes without the leads in Columbia are also punctuated by how downtrodden it is and how desolate the situation with the oil rig is both for the company and especially for the locals who lost family in the accident. Not to mention the overbearing aspect of the dictatorial regime there with posters, emblems, and soldiers constantly present. The film goes more for an atmospheric and tonal approach as opposed to story and character and what little of the latter is there is mostly to emphasize the former. The characters are all trying to escape their fates they set through their past mistakes by going on a journey that will very likely kill them and it plays out in a way that shows how they truly can’t escape no matter how hard they try.  It’s not for everyone since it is a very dour film all things considered, but it makes for an interesting and captivating experience. It’s a movie about people trying to survive and it is blunt in this manner. It doesn’t try to dress it up with clichés or forced sentimentality, but rather presents its subjects honestly and gives something to connect since the emotions and events, as exaggerated as they can be, are identifiable and relatable to some extent.

Watching a film like this also makes you appreciate this period of director-driven filmmaking and long for its ambition again, and also lets you recognize why it fizzled out as quickly as it came due to the budgets and directors acting like maniacs behind the wheel. The fact that this movie was done practically and on location in the jungle makes it more impressive than if it was made today with CGI. They actually built a bridge and drove a truck over it (and yes it did fall in the river a lot, once with the director in it) and they did blow up a huge tree. It emphasizes what effort and honest insanity it took to make these kinds of movies. Even securing actors was a difficulty since many who were offered roles didn’t want to spend months in the jungle. A film like this would absolutely be made differently or not at all today due to what the cast and crew clearly went through to get it made. I get conflicting feelings about it since while I admire the artistry, I also don’t tolerate how some directors became aggressive and almost abusive towards their cast and crew simply out of a personal desire for artistry.

This production and directorial drive, however, is also what doomed the film. Like many films of the late 70s-early 80s however, the film got too big for its britches. It went over budget to around 22 million (100 million today) and had to rely on two big studios, Universal and Paramount, to get it made. There were consistent issues during the filming and conflicts between the director and crew due to the stress and taxing work to the point that many were fired or quit throughout production including camera people and production managers. Freidkin himself caught malaria and around 50 others were injured or got food poisoning. The bridge scene alone cost millions and months of work due to the initial river in the Dominican Republic drying up and having to use artificial pumps when the river in Mexico they found as a replacement experienced a drought.

Moreover, the film came at the worst time since it was released a month after Star Wars, which signaled the shift from director-driven projects to blockbusters with more hands-on control by studios. Releasing so close to a movie that was not only a cultural phenomenon but also one that appealed to many through an opposite approach with story and characters likely made Sorcerer feel unappealing by comparison. This wasn’t helped by how other director projects like Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart, an attempt to start a director-driven production model/studio, and Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s 3-and-a-half-hour historical epic made from the clout of his Oscar win with The Deer Hunter, also bombed due to similar budget overflow and issues on set. Friedkin did keep directing films for the rest of his life but never got to make something as huge as Sorcerer or as mainstream as the films he made before it again. He mostly made smaller movies and has one more, The Canine Mutiny Court-Martial, set for posthumous release at the Venice Film Festival this year after a 12-year pause with directing. While one could argue that Sorcerer’s failure resulted in Friedkin’s career never being the same again after, the film has gone on to be a cult hit and Friedkin himself has stated that it is the movie he is the proudest of.

From my perspective though, I feel like this was something special. It may not be the most complex film, but its ambition is admirable and it really does feel special in terms of its techniques and approaches. Moreover, its tone and set pieces struck me through the tense and almost aggressive way it takes you along the journey with the characters. If you haven’t seen this film, I’d highly recommend it. It goes to show that lesser-known movies can take you by surprise and captivate us even decades after their release.