The Deer Hunter (1978)

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One of the most important and powerful films of all time!

The Deer Hunter is a monstrously magnificent three hour epic. At times it feels like six hours, at others sixty minutes. Although often characterized as a war film it really is more akin to a psychological drama. It also stirs up quite a bit of controversy as well, having a very divisive following. I would venture that roughly half of folks truly think this a great film and the others are equally sure that it’s a piece of drawn out schlock.

The Deer Hunter is really about the impact of war on a small Pennsylvania town and a group of three very close friends who go to Vietnam. Although what you would consider the war footage – and in this I would put the prison camp scenes and subsequent escape- is extremely powerful, it is a miniscule portion of the end product. Probably around half an hour. And there is almost zero actual combat.

The trio of friends is Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken). Joining them in support are friends (of a more exteneded variety) Stan (John Cazale) and Linda (Meryl Streep). It is a phenomenal cast and almost strange in this era of Meet the Fockers, Wedding Crashers, and the like, to realize that at one point Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken could act- and do so very well.

Only Meryl Streep seems to have maintained her acting integrity over the years and is a strong but definitely supporting piece of the puzzle her. Surprisingly it is really her breakthrough role, having really only appeared in a few TV movies to that point.

As a side note at the time of the picture’s filming she was engaged to John Cazale, a personal favorite of mine, mostly from The Godfather series. By the time of The Deer Hunter John Cazale was terribly ill (in fact dying) with cancer, although the production didn’t know at the time. His scenes were shot first and sadly he lost his battle with cancer just after filming wrapped.

Of the above named castmembers, three were nominated for Academy Awards (Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken), although only Christopher Walken walked away with the statue. It was nominated for many others and walked away with five Oscars that year, including ones for Best Picture and Best Director (Michael Cimino).

Michael Cimino himself reached his highest point (to date) with The Deer Hunter. He followed that with what surely will be his lowest, Heaven’s Gate, in 1980. (Heaven’s Gate is in fact, a rarity- a movie I simply cannot get through.) His career has just recently begun to regain a bit of traction, but may never fully recover.

But back to The Deer Hunter.

Our three friends head off to war, leaving Stan and Linda behind. Before going Linda and Nick become engaged. There is a tremendous amount of exposition (and screen time) leading up to their actual departure. While perhaps this could have been trimmed a bit, this does (as it was surely intended to) flesh out these characters and make us care a bit about them. We see them doing various activities, like attending a wedding, having a cold one in a local bar, and perhaps most significantly, a deer hunt.

The deer hunt itself is especially symbolic, which is apparent when it runs, but becomes more so later in the movie. Mike (Robert De Niro) is the master hunter and the music accompanying the hunt is akin to something you’d likely hear in a gothic cathedral. Of course Mike gets his deer.

Much later in the film, and after returning from the war, the lads go on another hunt, and the same music blares. However, now Mike has lost either the ability or desire to kill the deer. Or perhaps both. Like much in this film, the viewer is left to tie the ends together, which I am- unlike many- completely ok with. Those in the ‘detractor’ camp cite this open endedness as a critical failure of the film.

Granted, there are many dots the viewer must connect- and in some cases they can go together a bit differently. However, I don’t mind thinking so it’s okay.

So after an hour or so we head to Vietnam and after just enough time to set the stage our three soldiers are suddenly prisoners in a North Vietnamese prison camp, where torture and games of Russian roulette are the orders of the day.

This roulette scene is perhaps one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen. It is raw and powerful and the intensity and near panic conveyed is palpable. Though not a scene I could ever imagine munching popcorn through.

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