Directed By: Michael Cimino
Written By: Deric Washburn
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, John Cazale
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is a film which is at times devastating and at others lethargic. It’s a film about the Vietnam War, but not about warfare. It’s about Vietnam in the same way that Rocky is about boxing. The conflict is there, and is entrancing when it is, but its true function is to act as a catalyst for character evolution, something that needs to happen in order for the film to make its real points regarding tested relationships. It might have been better served however if it was about war; the other thesis, the salient one, is realised in a rather rambling fashion.
The film unravels in three distinct parts. It’s a before-and-after shot, with Vietnam in the middle to delineate the two poles. The middle act, which whips us to the sweltering bloodstained jungle, is the film’s most effective. Cimino’s greatest triumph is rendering with clarity what terrifies most about the war; the way it belittles those who fight in it, the senselessness of it, the savagery, the absence of rhyme and reason, the arbitrariness of who lives and who dies.
The criticism most often levelled at The Deer Hunter, a film which has managed to cling to its elite status despite having its grip loosened in the subsequent years of its release, are the liberties it takes with truth and its black-and-white politics regrading a subject matter that is notoriously grey. The North Vietnamese are caricatures of evil, whilst the Americans are gallant victims. The middle act, which is confined to the hellishness of the war, features an extended torture sequence as its centre piece, in which U.S and South Vietnamese P.O.Ws are forced to play Russian roulette against one another as entertainment for their captors. Whether the North indeed forced their prisoners to play Russian roulette has been the subject of much conjecture, however more pressingly, the “bad-guys” are so simplistically realised that it ascribes a reductive outlook to the film; the North Vietnamese literally belly-laugh at their weeping detainees who prey for an empty chamber. Regardless of politics, it is true that these scenes are unmitigated in their power. They’re perturbing and tense; examples of fully transporting filmmaking in which the emotions of the characters become our own, making the hideousness of the war tangible for the viewer. Whether literal truth for emotional truth is a fair trade is debatable, the film’s affect in these moments is not.
There are three key characters who find themselves in Vietnam, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steve (John Savage). The film’s opening act devotes itself to ingratiating us with these men and the circle to which they belong. Like the Vietnam portion of the film, Cimino again hones in on a singular event as the act’s centre piece, the wedding of Steve before he and his two compatriots beckon their nations call for men to fight abroad. In spite of the first hour’s pottering nature, Cimino’s diligence gives way to a series of well defined, sharply drawn characters. Michael is the leader, a manly, no-nonsense warrior who lives life laconically. He is tight lipped and matter-of-fact in his demeanour, but he also brings this same laconic personality to his philosophical life. Michael explains to Nick that when hunting, a deer must be killed with a single bullet; “it’s all about one shot” he says, there’s a beauty and rituality to it when done right; killing isn’t for fun. Nick is less intense, there’s a boyishness to him, a devil-may-care uncertainty towards life, more content to take it as it comes. Stevie is the group’s most vulnerable, we question whether he truly knows what the war entails.
We recognise the day-to-day life of the men. Their interactions ring true, a key asset which allows us to appreciate what stands to be lost.
Like the men who survive the war, but don’t really survive, the film never recovers from its venture to Vietnam. In the third act the friends are each scattered to the winds and the film becomes about the alienation of men who have been subjected to something unknowably awful. And their pain proliferates. Vietnam came home with its survivors and touched everyone. John Cazale, as the idiotic, juvenile co-worker of the trio, and Meryl Streep, as Nick’s conflicted sweetheart, are the two central homebound Americans who bear the brunt of their friends’ pain.
The movie’s navigation of the war’s aftermath grows lethargic and meandering in its final hour, settling for only disparate moments of communication, where not enough of what needs to be said, regarding the radiating impact of Vietnam, is said. There is a strong sequence where Michael goes deer hunting once more, a sequence which gets to the heart of the price Michael must now pay for his survival, and plenty of tears are shed, but that veracity of the pre-war relationships has been traded in for baggy melodrama post-war. And then there’s the film’s final moment, an ironic and poignant assessment of America’s involvement in the war, but one which comes flying from left field and seems to have stumbled in from the thesis of another film.
The Deer Hunter isn’t a masterpiece then, but it contains masterful elements. The performances are tremendous; each is nuanced and wrenching. It’s evocation of the terrors of war are uniquely powerful, the stuff of nightmares. But it’s also an ill-disciplined film, one which is stunted too often to be truly great.