Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Deer Hunter

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/23/05 w/ Additional Edits.

Michael Cimino's 1978 film The Deer Hunter is a Vietnam war drama about three Pennsylvanian steelworkers whose lives were changed during their service in the Vietnam War. Written with screenwriters Deric Washburn and Louis Garfinkle with story author Quinn K. Redeker, The Deer Hunter focuses on the idealism of men and their own world in relation to deer hunting. After seeing the horror of Vietnam and a psychologically-charged game of Russian roulette, things were never the same. Starring Robert de Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, John Savage, Chuck Aspergren, Rutanya Alda, and the late John Cazale in his final film. The Deer Hunter is an evocative yet harrowing film from Michael Cimino.

Michael (Robert de Niro) and his friends Nick (Christopher Walken), Stan (John Cazale), and Axel (Chuck Aspergren) are ready to celebrate the upcoming wedding of their friend Steven (John Savage). Coming off their work from the steel mills, they set off to meet with friend John (George Dzundza) at his bar while getting ready for the wedding. With Steven marrying his bride Angela (Rutanya Alda) in front of many witnesses including his Russian mother (Shirley Stoler) and Nick's girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep) whom Michael has a crush on. The wedding goes off smoothly where at the wedding reception, Michael, Nick, and Steve meet an army sergeant (Paul D'Amato) who they ask about the war and his response was "fuck it".

After the wedding, Michael, Nick, Stan, John, and Axel go off for a final deer hunt while Steve is out on his honeymoon. After a testy lecture to Stan about shooting a deer with just one-shot, Michael goes for his deer with much success. After a final moment in the bar, things suddenly change once Michael, Nick, and Steve arrive at Vietnam. After being captured, they are imprisoned in a river base where they're forced to play a sick, psychological game of Russian roulette to the amusement of Vietcong soldiers. After Michael and Nick goes nuts, they escape with Steve. Though Nick is saved by a helicopter, Michael and an injured Steve are left behind where Michael would find Nick at a parlor in Saigon with a Frenchman named Julien (Pierre Segui).

Michael returns to Pennsylvania all by himself as he tries to isolate from everyone only to find solace with Linda, who is pining for Nick’s return. After meeting with his friends and learning of Steve’s whereabouts, Michael is no longer the same man after a deer hunt with friends realizing his new ideas about nature. After meeting with Steve in a Veterans hospital, he learns of Nick's whereabouts as he returns to Saigon to fulfill the promise they made at Steve's wedding night.

While the film is great in many levels, it certainly does have its flaws. While some have claimed the film is racist for its depiction of the Vietcong army, notably the Russian roulette scene in the river. Cimino nor does his writers try to claim any truth about it while the script does leave some huge gaps in the film's plot, notably the timing. Originally, the film was four hours long before Cimino was forced to cut it to three hours. Many will also complain about the film's pacing, especially at its three-hour running yet Cimino used the pacing to get the audience to study the characters and the situations around them, especially in the wedding reception scene.

The film isn’t really a war film but it's really a coming-of-age film of three men whose idealism of their ideas of what war is comes face-to-face with reality. The aftermath of the capture and Russian roulette river scenes changes the film to something more emotionally driven that leads Michael character to find some peace in Linda. The parallels of American and Vietnamese life is very intact, notably the deer hunting scenes as Michael, after his return to Vietnam stops killing because of the madness he saw when he sees a Vietcong soldier kill children. There's a madness to it that drives into some very emotionally powerful scenes, especially the final scene that leads to an impromptu singing of "God Bless America".

While the film does look very grand of a classic 1970s film thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond's vast and evocative cinematography and the production work of art directors Rob Hobbs and Kim Edgar Swados. The film works very well in its technical side along with its award-winning sound work, the editing by Peter Zinner, and a serene, ominous score by Stanley Myers including a film theme performed by Steven Spielberg's composer John Williams.

The film's cast is brilliant with nice small performances from Shirley Stoler, Rutanya Alda, Paul D'Amato, and Pierre Segui while Chuck Aspergren and George Dzundza fill in some of nice supporting parts. While John Cazale's role was small as the jerky, cowardly Stan, he gives it all in a subtle, enigmatic performance in his final film as he died months before the film's release. John Savage brings a tortured innocence performance to his role as Steven while Meryl Streep brings a graceful presence to her character though some have felt her role was underdeveloped. The best performances in The Deer Hunter really belong to Robert de Niro and Christopher Walken. Whereas de Niro brings a complex, anguished approach to his performance, it is Walken who steals the show with his weary, harrowing tone as he steals the show from everyone and eventually win an Oscar for his performance.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful and heartbreaking film from Michael Cimino. With a great cast led by Robert de Niro and Christopher Walken, it's a film that is filled with great performances and very touching scenes. It is definitely Cimino's best film in an otherwise shaky career while it is a film that is among one of the key films about the Vietnam War. In the end, The Deer Hunter is a spectacular yet mesmerizing film from Michael Cimino.

Michael Cimino Films: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot - Heaven's Gate - (Year of the Dragon) - (The Sicilian) - (Desperate Hours) - (The Sunchaser) - To Each His Own Cinema-No Translation Needed

(C) thevoid99 2011


dtmmr said...

This is just one of the best anti-war films of all-time that shows Walken and De Niro in top-form. It's such a shame that Cimino did terrible films after this because he really was on his A-game for this one. Great Review Steve!

thevoid99 said...

There's a lot of stuff I like about The Deer Hunter though it is a shame that Cimino never made anything as good after this. Then again, it was his own undoing after the debacle that was Heaven's Gate. I'm still interested in the other films he did in the 80s like Year of the Dragon and The Sicilian, the latter in its director's cut.

I don't care for his 90s output which I found to be meandering and lacking in any sense of realism. Plus, he still seems to believe that he is one of the best in the world. Yet, I have a theory that the reason Cimino wanted Heaven's Gate to be brilliant because he wanted to top Terrence Malick in terms of artistry and such in the way Malick did with Days of Heaven.

Alas, Malick is working and seems to be enjoying the success of The Tree of Life while Cimino has decided to look like a young Asian for some odd reason.

Andy Buckle said...

I remember struggling through this when I was quite young. On a revisit, I found it to be a really astounding film. Certainly a highlight in the careers of all involved!

thevoid99 said...

@Andy-It's a film where despite a few flaws is always worth revisiting.