Jon Voight plays Ed one of the four "city-folk" who go off into the backwoods for the rafting trip on a secluded river. Voight portrays Ed at the beginning of the film as just a fairly easy going sort of guy. Voight is likable enough in portraying Ed as basically just wanting to go and enjoy his vacation with his friends. Voight nicely plays Ed as just a normal guy looking for a good time. The same can't quite be said about Burt Reynolds's Lewis. Reynolds plays the part with a country twang that almost sounds exactly like the sort of accent Paul Newman used in Hud. Burt Reynolds plays Lewis in a somewhat larger than life fashion, although with a clever twist about it. Reynolds does not plays Lewis as though he is truly some sort action hero, or great adventurer, but rather positions him as a man who believes himself to be. Reynold has a considerable swagger in the way Lewis walks and talks. Everything he does Reynolds plays as possibly a bit much, although this seems to be intentionally so as he shows Lewis to be man who wants to be this adventurer, which works particularly well against Voight who keeps Ed as such a unpretentious sort of man.
The beginning of the trip goes well enough even though it is obvious that the other two men Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) have a bit of a learning curve to go through. A good scene early on is when Ed is shooting the breeze with Lewis at a resting spot while Lewis is showing off his archery skills by shooting fish in the river. While doing this they have a bit of a philosophical discussion in regards to survival. Reynolds is quite good by showing the honestly slightly demented view of Lewis as he speaks about survival in a most peculiar way. Reynolds does well because he presents such a pride in Lewis as he shoots his arrows and boasts about his survival skills while being so very cheerful at the idea of some sort of social collapse. Reynolds believable creates this odd view as he shows that Lewis more than anything relishes the chance to basically prove that he's as awesome as he thinks he is. Voight again does fine work in being the understated counterpoint that provides a balance for Reynolds's work. Voight portrays just the very genuine reactions of one friend to another kinda shaking his head at his friend, who he knows is kinda serious but does not exactly know what he means either. Voight is good in exuding the contentment in Ed as he clearly just enjoys the trip and does not see it as the proving ground Lewis views it to be.
The turn takes a sudden dark turn when the separated Ed and Bobby on a break are approached by two armed mountain men. Although Ed and Bobby try to be pleasant enough things quickly become dangerous as the men begin to threaten them with their weapons before they tie Ed to a tree and force Bobby to strip at gunpoint. Voight's performance here is excellent as he amplifies the horror of the scene through his particularly honest portrayal of Ed's terror as the situation only becomes worse as one of the men begins to rape Bobby. Voight brings the needed fear into Ed as it becomes clear that they very well might not come out of the situation alive. Their savior comes in the form of Lewis who sneaks up on the situation, and Voight's terrified reaction is perfect as he nods for Lewis to take the killing shot against the mountain man who violated Bobby. Voight is terrific in the moment because he expresses no malice but rather just the desire of survival in Ed. Reynolds perhaps has his best scene as the four discuss what they should do next. Reynolds is fantastic in the moment as he shows Lewis looking over the dead man as though it's an achievement of his although with that Reynold artfully brings a glint of sadness as the weight of what he has done seems to slowly dwell him. He never lets the others see exactly, but Reynolds does show that the killing was not just a game for Lewis.
After they leave something happens which causes one of the men to fall into the river to his death and in the ensuing accident Lewis suffers a serious wound. This kinda puts Reynolds out of commission for the rest of the film although he does create the pain of the wound rather effectively and has two good moments, one were he eggs on Ed to take action the other when he later purposefully act oblivious to what exactly happened on the river towards the authorities. This leaves Voight to wholly take over as the lead starting with the point where the men decide one of them has to take down the other mountain man who they believe shot at them from the hills above. Voight is excellent in the scene of climbing the mountain especially in a brief moving moment where Ed glances at a photo of his family on his way up. After resting the night morning comes and Ed is awoken to apparently the man at a distance. Voight is outstanding in this scene as Ed readies his bow. Voight brings the intensity of the moment as he expresses the gravity of the situation as he suggests in his nervousness as Ed is well aware he is about to take a life. When the moment happens Voight is equally excellent in creating the aftermath first the immediate physical pain from falling his own arrow, then the powerful sorrow as Ed examines the dead man. Voight's final scenes are quite striking as he very much earns the transformation in Ed. This is not a transformation to a hard man so to speak, but rather a somewhat broken man haunted by his experience which will never leave him the same. The ease in his manner disappears and Voight is rather affecting in silently conveying what the events of the trip have done to him. Voight and Reynolds, who I do feel is lead due to his importance for the first two thirds, both give strong performances that vividly create the two intriguing personalities of Ed and Lewis and give rather remarkable depictions of how their "adventure" changes each man.