The Deer Hunter

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Kicking off my best picture themed month for 2014 we have a largely forgotten film: The Deer Hunter. There have been many films about the Vietnam War over the years, and I feel like this one gets the short end of the stick. Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket can still all fight it out for the title of best film about Vietnam, but this one isn’t generally discussed, which is a shame. However, this one does have the best picture win (along with Platoon in ’86 of course), and that’s something. This one may seem a bit tame compared to the rest of them, but it still has the same feelings of loss of innocence, and the irreparable damage caused by war.

There are three men from a small town in Pennsylvania that go off to war. Steven (John Savage) is getting married to his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda), and the reception is doubling as a going away party. Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are the other two going. This is a very slow paced movie, and takes its own sweet time setting everything up. This might be a draw back for some (I wasn’t bored really but it took me a long time to get through), but it’s really crucial to how you view these characters. Everything seems peaceful and leisurely in the town. While everything is grimy and dirty and these people aren’t rich by any standards, they have a great sense of community and any problems that they do have can’t measure up against it. We see the wedding and then the reception, and everyone is partying and having a grand old time.

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That’s not to say there aren’t moments of foreboding. There are, but the characters are largely unaware of them, making it all the more tragic. As part of the wedding ceremony, Steve and Angela have to drink out of connected goblets and if they don’t spill anything, they’ll have good luck for the rest of their lives. Everyone there thinks they’ve accomplished this, but the camera focuses in on Angela’s dress and you see she spilled a few drops (resembling blood, no less). The three guys meet a special forces soldier who’s only words are “f**k it.” They ask him what it’s like to fight in Vietnam, but they can’t get anything else out of him. It’s a dreadful piece of foreshadowing that the three friends don’t pay much heed too. Worst of all, Nick asks his girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep) to marry him when he gets back, she even catches the bouquet, but if you didn’t already know before that you certainly know after, he’s never coming back.

This movie required some background research on my part actually. Seeing both Robert De Niro and John Cazale in the cast had me thinking these characters were supposed to be Italian, but that assumption definitely didn’t fit the evidence in the film. As you get into the film it becomes more obvious that they’re supposed to be Russian Americans, but I couldn’t tell at the beginning. The wedding ceremony was completely unfamiliar to me, because it’s Orthodox and I don’t know much about that part of Christianity. Also, even though I had heard vague things about Russian Roulette, I didn’t realize it was a real game and always played with a gun. I had always thought (don’t ask me why) that it was a normal game and then in this movie, as a result of the brutality of the war, they added a gun in there to be especially sadistic. Not the case,  that’s just the game. You put a bullet in a revolver, spin it around, and then the person shoots himself, not knowing whether there is a bullet in the chamber or not. That’s really helpful to know ahead of time, because I was a bit confused and the film doesn’t take any pains to explain itself to you, which is a good thing, but you also have to be on top of things.

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Before they all leave, they go on one last hunting trip. Mike is able to take a deer with only “one shot,” having to fire any more than one is against his philosophy. Then they drop straight into Vietnam. Things are crazy, but by some strange magic Steve, Mike, and Nick all meet up again. They get captured by the Vietcong and the infamous games of Russian Roulette begin. These are really intense scenes, so I want to clarify the claim I made earlier about how other Vietnam films might be a bit crazier. The Vietnam scenes are just as intense as any you’ll find, but they make up a relatively small part of the film. Most of it takes place in Pennsylvania, so that’s what I meant when I said that earlier. They manage to get out by challenged the VC to give them extra bullets, making it more likely one of them will die, but instead Mike opens fire on the VC and manages to get away. They get picked up by a helicopter, but the shaken and possibly injured Steve falls off, Mike jumps into the water to save him, but Nick stays on the helicopter and the three are separated. The rest of the film shows how and what happens to the characters once they get home.

The film has a strange sense of logic. At times it can seem unbelievable, but I think overall it works for the film. There are a lot of chance meeting between the three, including the one I just described above, but there are also more. Also, (and this is kind of spoilerly), things get reversed in a cruel way, how Nick escapes on the helicopter but ends up being the most entrenched in Vietnam afterwards. Surely he is motivated by guilt. I talked about foreshadowing earlier, and basically everything bad you think is going to happen does. You don’t know exactly how it’s going to go down, but you know it’s not going to be good. I can’t emphasize enough how much the picture benefits from this. There’s an incredibly strong sense of dread and inevitability throughout the whole film that is depressing but very effective.

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Though Michael Cimino would  later go on to direct one of the worst flops in the history of cinema with Heaven’s Gate (maybe that’s another reason this film isn’t remembered as much as some other Vietnam films I mentioned), his work here his fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever compared another director to Terrence Malick before, but I’m going to do it now. The way he is able to shoot things from a distance to show the sense of community among the group is really reminiscent of Malick (incidentally, his Days of Heaven came out in ’78 also). The film doesn’t have much of the same beautiful shots of nature though. I actually appreciated how beat the town in Pennsylvania looked. Also, he is great at being able to go from a crowd to an individual. There’s a shot where De Niro is looking at Streep (one of the subplots that doesn’t even get too confrontational is that Mike and Nick are both in love with her) who is dancing with a bunch of people, and the camera very slowly moves in so you can tell he’s looking at her. He does this quite frequently, reminding me of King Vidor’s The Crowd, though the technique is used for different reasons there. I’m really interested in seeing just how terrible Heaven’s Gate is, now that I’ve seen this film.

There are some flaws here. As I mentioned before, there are many unbelievable coincidences. They seem to all meet up in Vietnam because the plot needs them too, giving you a sense that some sort of strange rationality is controlling the world these characters live in. Maybe that is the idea, though the randomness of the film’s main motif, the Russian Roulette, would tend to refute this (or would it? I can’t  decide). Also, the VC are portrayed as very one-dimensional villains. This doesn’t necessarily hurt the film, but depending on how important you think historical accuracy is, it might bother you. These flaws never sink the film though, as the focus is generally on the characters (the American ones anyway) and it works wonderfully in that respect.

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The acting in this film is phenomenal, as you can probably tell just by looking at the names on the poster. I’m used to seeing De Niro in Scorsese films and in those he’s generally a gangster and other assorted incredibly violent people. He shows a bit of a softer side in this film, and it’s nice to see. Not to say that Mike doesn’t have his own demons, he just seems able to deal with them a lot better than other characters De Niro has played. John Cazale doesn’t have a huge part to play here, he’s one of the friends that doesn’t go to war, but it’s just as tragic to see him here as he died from cancer before the film was completed. This has to be one of the best roles I’ve ever seen Christopher Walken in, and definitely one of the earliest. This was true of almost all of the actors here, it’s strange to see them all so young. It added a weird feeling to the film that was obviously not originally intended. Anyway, Walken goes through the most dramatic transformation of the bunch, and for that he got supporting actor that year, very deservedly so. Last but certainly not least, Streep gives an incredibly sweet and intelligent performance as Linda.

The Deer Hunter was nominated for nine Oscars in ’78, and took home five of them. It won best picture, director, sound, editing, and supporting actor for Walken. De Niro lost out on best actor, Streep lost out on supporting actress, and it lost original screenplay and cinematography. All in all, it did pretty well for itself. I still can’t shake the feeling that it’s been incredibly overlooked in more recent times, especially given the still famous actors in it, and how good it is. I could be wrong about this, but it seems a slight injustice. It has a few faults, but it more than makes up for them in emotional impact.

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“I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on mountains, all the different… the way the trees are.”

Long story short: 3.5/4

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review
The Best Picture Project review
Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews review

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9 responses to “The Deer Hunter

  1. Good review Hunter. This movie truly did hit me like a ton of bricks, but in a good way. One of the better anti-war films out there, despite its very obvious one-handed approach.

    • Thanks! It is a very powerful movie. I was thinking it actually wasn’t that anti war though, given that Michael actually ended up pretty okay. Definitely doesn’t glorify however.

    • Ehhh I wouldn’t go quite that far, since I feel like horror generally isn’t this sad. I haven’t horrified so much as saddened, but I see what you’re saying.
      I didn’t know how common that knowledge was, so I thought I would include that in the review. I was pretty confused until I looked it up. 🙂

  2. Great review! This and Godfather are one of the few films where run time doesn’t bother me, very interesting characters. I may have told you this already but before I watched this, the only films I had seen De Niro in were like Meet The Parents and the second installment. So for the longest time I just thought he wasn’t anybody special, wooo then I saw this movie and was blown away, that Russian Roulette scene and the cabin scene with the gun and the friend were pretty intense. haha then I dove into the world of Scorsese with Taxi Driver, and finally consider De Niro one of the best. Glad you enjoyed The Deer Hunter 🙂

    • Thanks! I don’t mind run time so much; it only bothers me if I don’t like the movie. And it can be an inconvience when you have a lot of stuff going on, but that’s not really the movie’s fault.
      Yeah De Niro does a good job here. Glad you figured out Meet and the Parents and stuff like that was the anomaly and not the rule. If it was me I’d be like “why does everybody think this guy is so great?? I must be going insane!!!” lol. I still do kind of think that about Laurence Olivier sometimes. It wasn’t just the intense parts though, De Niro’s really good in the quiet moments here too.

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