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From the DVD Shelf: The Deer Hunter (1978)

A few years ago when I was watching the documentary I Knew it was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (a really incredible short documentary that is well worth checking out — click here for my review), I commented that of Mr. Cazale’s five films, the only one that I hadn’t seen was The Deer Hunter. When Universal decided to release a nice new blu-ray of the film as part of their 100 year anniversary celebration, it seemed like it was finally time for me to remedy that.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful anti-war film, co-written and directed by Michael Cimino. It concerns the effects of the Vietnam war on a small group of friends from a Pittsburgh steel town. The very long (over three hours) film basically has three distinct sections.

The first act, well over an hour long, depicts a tumultuous day and a half in the life of Mike (Robert de Niro) and his steel-worker buddies. When we meet them, they are finishing a day’s work in the steel mill. They head to a bar to relax, and we learn that that night is Steven (John Savage)’s wedding, an event which the film depicts in geat detail. I don’t recall this lengthy an on-screen wedding celebration since The Godfather. The weddings in both films serve a similar function: slowly introducing us to all of the characters and their relationships.

I love how Mr. Cimino (working from a script he co-wrote with Deric Washburn, which was adapted in part from a script by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker) takes his sweet time with the opening act.  We really live with these characters for a while, and I think that gives the film’s second and third segments that much more power.  We spent time in this opening act learning some character details that don’t really go anywhere in terms of the film’s plot — I’m thinking specifically of the scene with Meryl Streep’s character Linda and her abusive father — but which enrich our understanding of these people and their lives.  The wedding itself takes up a huge chunk of screen-time, but none of it feels extraneous or wasted.  Indeed, the 30-40 minutes we spend at the wedding might be my favorite part of the film!

The film’s second act takes place in Vietnam.  We skip right over all the usual basic training sequences, and also over seeing our characters’ reactions to arriving in Vietnam.  Instead, we jump right into the middle of a harrowing sequence in which Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are being held captive by a group of Viet Cong soldiers.  The captured American soldiers are forced to play Russian Roulette until, one after another, they are each killed.  Michael and Nick are eventually forced to play against each other.  Although they are able to escape, the friends are separated.

The film’s final act takes place upon Mike’s return from Vietnam.  We see his difficulty at returning to his home-town, and his uncertain reaction to his friends’ jovial welcome.  Clearly he is still scarred by the events in Vietnam.  But not as much as Nick, apparently, who seems to have never left the country.  Perhaps to make peace with himself, or perhaps for Linda (Meryl Streep), who was Nick’s girlfriend before the war, Mike decides to return Vietnam to try to find his friend.

Right from the opening scenes it is clear that Mr. Cimino has crafted an unusual film.  Those early scenes are remarkable, as we are introduced to life in the steel town in Pittsburgh.  With lots of long-shots and over-lapping dialogue, Mr. Cimino forces the audience to work in order to figure out who the characters are in the film — who is who, and what their relationships are to one another.  Even once we’ve met the friends, Mr. Cimino keeps our attention moving from one member of the group to another.  Whereas most films make very clear, from the first minute, who the main character is, The Deer Hunter only very gradually, over the first hour, focuses in on Mike (Robert De Niro).  It’s a fascinating approach, and one I was quite taken by.  Without question, The Deer Hunter is a film that rewards patience.

I love the way the film begins and ends with a song.  That first song — the Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” — is sung by the drunken friends the afternoon before Stanley (John Savage)’s wedding.  It’s a wonderful cinematic moment of pure, unfiltered joy.  At the end of the film, the surviving friends once again gather and sing — a slow, somber rendition of “God Bless America.”  It’s a tragic ending, but that song also provides a surprising burst of patriotism, and a glimmer of hope, at the end of the long journey.  It’s a perfect way to bring the film’s story to a close.

Each one of the main characters is played by an amazingly talented actor — Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, and John Savage.  They’re all terrific, but it’s Christopher Walken who steals the show for me.  Many of the mannerisms and vocal inflections that would become cliche later in his career are dialed down in this performance.  Mr. Walken brings enough weirdness to the character that Nick immediately stands out, but not in a silly way.  He’s just someone who seems a bit different from his buddies.  I love Mr. Walken, particularly in the film’s first hour.  His Nick is so joyful, so human, that I was quite taken with him.

It’s in sharp contrast to Mr. De Niro, who plays Mike as something of an alien at first.  I was scared by Mike in the early going.  He seemed like someone very dangerous, someone just waiting to explode.  The Deer Hunter takes both characters on a transformative journey.  Mike’s experiences in Vietnam almost break him, but the Mike who returns home after the war is a gentler, more human man.  Whereas Nick undergoes a terrifying transformation in the opposite direction.  The Nick who we see at the end of the film is a zombie, a hollowed-out shell of a human being, and here again Mr. Walken kills in the role, bringing up his intensity to maximum to create a horrifying, scary creature.

I also adored Meryl Streep’s performance in the film.  It’s a relatively strong role, but it’s clear why her work in this film lead to such a long and successful career.  Her character of Linda is strong but also extremely gentle and vulnerable, and it’s hard not to fall for her as Mike does.  It’s a quiet performance, not showy at all, but it’s wonderfully rich and nuanced.  It’s Meryl Streep’s Linda, even more than any of the men, who has stayed with me.

The one aspect of The Deer Hunter that didn’t quite convince me was the Russian roulette aspect of the story.  That seemed bizarre for a Vietnam story, and I wasn’t shocked to learn that the film was initially based on a story about Russian Roulette that wasn’t set in Vietnam at all.  It seemed a little outlandish, to me, that a bunch of Viet Cong would use this method to torture prisoners of war.  But as a simple, cinematic metaphor for the horrors of war, the concept works well, and it leads to a gripping final confrontation between Nick and Mike late in the film.

A lesser filmmaker would have made a more conventional, two-hour version of this story.  Thank goodness that Mr. Cimino and his team aimed higher.  The Deer Hunter requires patience, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a haunting meditation on friendship and war.  It’s powerful stuff.  I’m glad to have finally seen it.

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