Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Deer Hunter

Directed by Michael Cimino and screenplay by Deric Washburn from a story by Cimino, Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker, The Deer Hunter is the story of three steelworkers from Pennsylvania who fight at the Vietnam War where their ideas of heroism has them encounter with the realness of war as one of them comes home changed and lost. The film into the idealism of men upon what they expected in the war as it is told the early years of the war to the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Starring Robert de Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspergren, Rutanya Alda, and John Cazale. The Deer Hunter is a gripping yet haunting film from Michael Cimino.

The film is about three men who work at the steel mills in Pennsylvania as they come from families of Russian descent as they’re set to leave to serve the Vietnam War. Yet, it’s a film that is a coming-of-age tale of sorts as Michael Vronsky (Robert de Niro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nick Chevortarevich (Christopher Walken) who all experience three different journeys upon their encounter with war as they don’t just lose their innocence but also themselves. It’s told in three different acts as the film’s screenplay takes it time to establish the characters and what they encounter. The first act is set in Pennsylvania as Steven is marrying his pregnant girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda) as Michael, Nick, and friends Stan (John Cazale), Axel (Chuck Aspergren) and John (George Dzundza) embark on a final deer hunt before Michael, Nick, and Steven leave for war.

The characterization of the three men showcase the different ideas of these men as Michael is a man who is no-nonsense as he believes in just one shot in order to kill a deer. Steven is a man who is quite loving and generous with his friends while Nick is the most introspective of the three as he loves hunting and the world of nature. Joined Stan, Axel, and John, they’re men who like to have a good time and such while Nick also has a girlfriend in Linda (Meryl Streep) whom Michael has feelings for. The first act is a look into innocence as well as some foreshadowing of the dark journey Michael, Nick, and Steven would encounter in the form of a drop of wine spilled on Angela’s bridal gown and the encounter with a soldier (Paul D’Amato) whom the three ask about the war as all the soldier says to them is “fuck it”.

The second act is set in Vietnam where Michael, Nick, and Steven not only encounter the horrors of war but also a world that is far more complicated where they’re captured by Vietcong soldiers who force them to play a sick, psychological game of Russian Roulette. The three would survive but the event would have bad repercussions as Nick and Michael would both take separate journeys while Steven becomes severely injured as he is later taken to a veterans hospital in the U.S. Nick would become lost in the dark world of Vietnam while Michael returns to America in its third act as a changed man as he becomes close to Linda while learning about Steven’s whereabouts that led him to learning what Nick’s been doing in Vietnam. It would play into this chilling climax about Nick’s descent as well as Michael trying to come to terms with what he’s lost and what he’s gained from his experience in the war.

Michael Cimino’s direction is definitely sprawling not just for the intimacy that he creates in the scenes at the wedding, its reception, as well as other scenes in the bars in the first act. It’s also these moments set in the mountains and forests where much of Cimino’s direction comes to life as he captures the mountains that were shot in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Washington, and Ohio to create something that feels like a world that is American at its most pure. Even in the small towns where Cimino’s direction has this sense of realism in the way men act towards each other and such as well as how they behave towards women. Some of which weren’t so good but some of it which includes the scenes between Michael and Linda are presented with great tenderness as they both deal with loss.

The direction has sequences that goes on for very long times such as the wedding and such where it establish some key moments for the characters as well as some small details that would occur. The scenes set in Vietnam was shot in Thailand as well as the infamous Russian Roulette sequence that is shot at the River Kwai. The scenes are very unsettling where there is a sense of unpredictability as it would play into the loss of innocence for the three men as Nick would descend further as he would be drawn by the world of Russian Roulette as it leads to this chilling climax during the Fall of Saigon where Michael tries to find him and take him home. It would be followed by this poignant epilogue that isn’t just about loss but how far the characters in the film have gone from the days of innocence in the late 1960s to the American nightmare at the fall of Saigon. Overall, Cimino crafts a very visceral yet touching film about three men and their chilling experience at the Vietnam War.

Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond does brilliant work with the film‘s cinematography from the lush scenery of the mountains in America to the desolate and eerie look of the scenes set in Vietnam as Zsigmond‘s work is a major highlight of the film. Editor Peter Zinner does excellent work with the editing from the news montage of the Fall of Saigon to some methodical cutting in the scenes at the wedding and its reception, the chilling scenes of war, and Michael‘s return to Saigon. Art directors Ron Hobbs and Kim Swados do fantastic work with the set pieces from the look of the river-prisons run by the Vietcong as well as the hall for the wedding reception.

The sound work of Richard Portman, William L. McCaughey, Aaron Rochin, and C. Darin Knight is amazing for its sound mixing in the way it captures the chaos of war as well as the craziness in the lively wedding reception sequence. The film’s music by Stanley Myers is exquisite for its orchestral-driven score to play into the sense of war as well as the calmness of small-town America as it includes the theme Catavina performed by classical guitarist John Williams while the film’s music soundtrack includes some traditional Russian folk and funeral music plus Frankie Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and God Bless America.

The casting by Cis Corman is incredible as it features some notable small roles from Paul D’Amato as a war veteran at the wedding reception, Shirley Stoler as Steven’s mother, Pierre Segui as Nick’s French friend at Vietnam Julien, and Rutanya Alda as Steven’s bride Angela who becomes lost following Steven’s disappearance after his injury at the war. Chuck Aspegren is excellent as the very joyful big man Axel as he often says “fuckin’ A” while George Dzundza is superb as the bar owner/friend John who also likes to make sure everyone has fun though he is unable to fight in the war due to his hands. Meryl Streep is amazing as Linda as a woman who shares her sense of loss with Michael over Nick while wondering if he’s still alive as it’s one of Streep’s finest performances.

In his final film performance, John Cazale is great as Stan as this cowardly yet kind man who often gets himself into bad situations while bringing in some humor as it’s a very unforgettable performance from the late actor. John Savage is brilliant as Steven as this young man who gets married in the film’s first act while encountering the horror of war as he would nearly lose his sanity as it’s a mesmerizing one. Christopher Walken is phenomenal as Nick as this introspective man whose encounter with Russian Roulette has him descend into madness as he loses himself as it’s a very chilling performance from Walken. Finally, there’s Robert de Niro in a tremendous performance as Michael as this no-nonsense straight-arrow whose encounter with war has him changed as he tries to deal with what he loses and what he could get back as it’s a very intense and engaging performance from de Niro.

The Deer Hunter is a remarkable film from Michael Cimino. Armed with a great cast led by Robert de Niro along with strong supporting work from Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, and the late John Cazale. It’s definitely one of the finest films about war and the myth of the American Dream as a fantasy. Particularly as it’s a film about the Vietnam War and how it affected those who served in that war. In the end, The Deer Hunter is a sensational film from Michael Cimino.

Michael Cimino Films: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot - Heaven‘s Gate - Year of the Dragon - The Sicilian - Desperate Hours (1990 film) - The Sunchaser - To Each His Own Cinema-No Translation Needed - The Auteurs #35: Michael Cimino

© thevoid99 2014


Unknown said...

Great post/review! This is on my watchlist and as the 70's is my favourite decade its a sin I haven't watched it yet. Will be seeing it very soon!

ruth said...

Hmmm, it turns out I never saw any of Michael Cimino movies. I remember someone gave me a review of Heaven's Gate before so that's the only reason I knew who he was.

Interesting that all these great actors are playing Russians in this movie!

Brittani Burnham said...

Great review! This was the first film I tackled on my Blind Spot list. I loved it.

thevoid99 said...

@Thomas Pollock-I hope you enjoy it as it's one of the finest films of the 1970s.

@ruth-I'm going to re-watch Heaven's Gate in July as I will spend part of the summer watching some films of his later this month and next month for my Auteurs piece on him in July.

@Brittani Burnham-Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Alex Withrow said...

Another one of my personal favorites. The first time I saw this film, it disturbed me so greatly. Still haunts me to this day.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex Withrow-the Russian Roulette scene is still scary as fuck. Especially in how brutal it is. Still a great movie.