That William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer should be re-released in a glistening new 4K digital restoration at Film Forum in some sense betrays the spirit of the film, for few works of American cinema have been so grounded in the well-grubbed materiality of the earth—a correlation between medium and content perhaps best appreciated with a sweaty and tattered 35mm release print. The digital version restores the striking visual detail to Friedkin’s favorite of his own works, but for a film that so explicitly thematizes the volatility of chemicals one must feel a tincture of regret at the prospect of digital projection. The new life afforded to these images does nothing, however, to allay the pervasive sense of death that suffuses the film like a malarial fever.
This remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) treads much of the same narrative ground as the original—four men drive two trucks full of nitroglycerine over precarious mountain roads to put out an oil well fire—but Friedkin expands the purview at a number of scales, from the geopolitical to the geotraumatic. The film opens on a globetrotting prologue that establishes the four main characters prior to their death drive through the jungle. Jetting from Veracruz, to Jerusalem, to Paris, to the rather-less-cosmopolitan Elizabeth, New Jersey, our doomed protagonists are introduced in turn (played by Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Bruno Cremer, and Roy Scheider, respectively) as they perform the deeds that will determine their fate. This opening act plays out in a mostly perfunctory manner: executions, terrorist bombings, corporate double-crossings, and small-time heists are shot in a mid-’70s handheld style that signifies “realism.” It’s all second-rate Costa-Gavras for the first half hour; Friedkin just doesn’t have his heart in anything so pedestrian as backstory or character motivation.
Sorcerer picks up a cruel momentum once the four men arrive in the South American banana republic that will serve as the refuge from the crimes of their previous lives. Friedkin has effectively reversed the dark trajectory of his previous film, The Exorcist (1973), which, as Ed Keller notes, begins with the excavation of the “deep time” of the earth in the spectacular Northern Iraq sequence and proceeds to the “human time” of the upper middle class milieu of Washington, D.C., and the story of a little girl’s possession.1 By contrast, Sorcerer begins in the recognizably human realm of urban spaces and then cuts a treacherous path into the non-human threat environment of asphyxial vegetation. Not a triumph over demonic possession here, but a lamentation of the dispossessed.
The four are recruited by the good-ole-boy Texan in charge of the derrick operation to truck the highly unstable nitro to the fire. Friedkin provides a faint critique of American corporations reaping the financial benefits of resource extraction from the global south: we’re told that “terrorists who blow up American oil wells are heroes” in these parts. But capitalism’s war on the earth is no match for the eschatological agency that seems to have a unique presence in Friedkin’s cinema, most recently in the brilliant Southern Gothic sleaze, Killer Joe (2011). As Kent Jones observes, “there are intimations of something deeply unsettling in his best films, moments where he works so hard to represent the forces threatening mankind that he gives us a glimpse of sustained disharmony, the blackest terror.”2
In this case, that blackest terror is the agential power of oil itself, what Reza Negarestani calls “hydrocarbon corpse juice.” Following Eugene Thacker’s recent philosophical grimoire In the Dust of This Planet (2011), we might add Sorcerer to a corpus of speculative works, including Fritz Leiber’s 1964 story “The Black Gondolier” and Negarastani’s own theory-fiction novel Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008), which all figure oil as a sentient, maleficent entity not discovered by man but discovering man for its own purposes. Negarastani explains, “according to the biogenic theory of fossil fuels, petroleum was formed under pressure and heat in the absence of oxygen while sadistically counting organic death tolls for millennia. Under such extreme conditions, petroleum grew a satanic verve for reanimating the dead and puppetizing the living on a planetary scale.”3 It is indeed this sense of a chthonic intelligence manipulating humans like puppets on a thanatopolitical stage that characterizes the film once the men embark on their mission. What follows are a series of harrowing set-pieces modulating various velocities and viscosities, including justly celebrated sequences of the trucks lumbering across a suspended rope bridge during a downpour and the liquid nitro being used to demolish a tree trunk blocking the road. Friedkin’s skills as a virtuosic director of process—think of the strip-searching of the car in The French Connection (1971), or the manufacturing of counterfeit bills in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)—are brought to the fore in this section of the film, making a case for it as some of the strongest action filmmaking of the 1970s.
Scheider is the last man standing at the lysergic ending, shot in the desolate and alien Bisti Badlands of New Mexico, the film having moved from the vegetable to the mineral to give us a predictive vision of a post-Anthropocene desertification of the earth. What Nick Land would call the “virulent nihilism” of the film is best expressed in a remarkable shot in which Scheider is seen staggering out of the desert, drawn toward flame like the proverbial moth, carrying a single case of nitro, and looking as if possessed by the black ooze, willing to carry the explosives into the oil fire himself. He is revealed not as a sorcerer so much as the sorcerer’s apprentice—metaphysical forces have been put into motion that are far beyond his control.
But the perverse gambit of Sorcerer, and Friedkin’s work generally, is to take a certain amount of joy in this cosmic pessimism. A maxim from the great Romanian poet-philosopher Emil Cioran could serve as the epigraph to Friedkin’s filmography: “The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live—moreover, the only one.”4
- Ed Keller, “Or, Speaking with the Alien, a Refrain,” in Leper Creativity, ed. Ed Keller et al (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2012), 244.
- Kent Jones, Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), 178.
- Reza Negarastani, “Outlines for a Science Fiction of the Earth as Narrated from a Nethermost Point of View,” World Literature Today 84 (2010): 12-3.
- E. M. Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Arcade, 1987).
Sorcerer opened at Film Forum on May 30th and is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.