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The Deer Hunter (1978)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997,1998

An emotionally charged, detailed saga of friendship and the damage wrought by Vietnam, The Deer Hunter stands alongside the very best examples of this genre. In the small Pennsylvanian town of Clairton, a steelworks that looms tall dominates the skyline. A Stygian scene, in the smoke and fire labour men who've never managed to escape their birthplace. Yet three life-long friends are about to depart for the alternative hell of Vietnam, with one taking the extra commitment of marriage. Steven (John Savage) is the groom, tying the knot with already pregnant Angela (Rutanya Alda). It's a great source of despair for Steven's first-generation, immigrant mother (Shirley Stoler).

The wedding is held inside the local cathedral, an enormous, glitteringly decorated testament to the unshakeable faith of these Russian-Americans. It's a lengthy affair, with Nick (Christopher Walken) and Linda (Meryl Streep) acting as courtiers. The unfortunate thing is that while these two are a couple, Nick's buddy Michael (Robert De Niro) would very much like to be in his shoes. Of course it's at the reception that everyone relaxes, it being a whirl of vodka, stylised dancing and feasting sufficient to set the happy couple on their matrimonial road. As friends are wont to do, the core group of Michael, Nick, Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) celebrate the coming battles. All are used to hunting deer in the mountains, so they can extrapolate the thrill of sighting an enemy.

Split, in classic fashion, into three acts and three central figures, The Deer Hunter views Vietnam from a common-man perspective. From the very first scenes we can see that Michael, Nick and Steven have known each other all of their lives, neighbours in a tight community. Director Michael Cimino doesn't waste time on backgrounding these characters because he doesn't have to; their obvious comfort together, a matrix of petty insults, gives insight into their deep and lasting bonds. It's a remarkable feat, especially when one considers the complexity of The Deer Hunter and its sheer emotional span. The film throws you straight into these folk's lives, yet superlative roles are their lifebelts; you're drawn into caring about these people and grasping their complexity without even realising it.

The first act of The Deer Hunter belongs to Steven, encouraged into a shotgun marriage for two reasons; Angela is with child and Steven may never come back from Vietnam. Now is the time to make an honest woman of her, for tomorrow may be too late. In the second act (in Vietnam), the inner strength and determination of Michael comes to the fore. While Nick and Steven visibly disintegrate under the abuse and torture of their captors, Michael refuses to capitulate. In fact he grows stronger, channelling every emotion through his self-will and harnessing the power. By the final segment this inner light has dimmed, without failing completely; the tragic core is now Nick, lost both in location and mind. For all that friendship binds the three together in post-conflict trauma, they prove unable to save one another. This is a tale of missed opportunity, where all see the possibility of returning intact slip through their fingers; these losses hurt.

The emotional weight of The Deer Hunter is staggering, in part because it blends the expected and unexpected. In the extended, intricate wedding, the historical links that bind the inhabitants of Clairton are set down. For close to an hour, the relational dynamics linking each of the main roles are brought forth naturally; a triumph of design and execution. By taking so much time at the outset, Cimino ensures that later emotional shocks are resting upon a firm and believable grounding. Simultaneously foundations are lain for the friends' assured weapons handling, the symbolism of the "one-shot kill" and the structure of a society that becomes alien to those destroyed and corrupted by Vietnam. It's a remarkable testament to the script, written by Cimino and others, that these themes resonate so clearly, separate and in combination.

At the very heart of The Deer Hunter sits the abomination that is Russian roulette, the ultimate "one-shot kill". Part fiction and part reality, this is a metaphor operating on several levels. Superficially it ties in with the joy that these working men feel when they go hunting, beyond which there is the similar mindset that both activities possess. Each is highly ritualised, a macho path whereby the soul can become purged and the thoughts calmed, preparation for death. Unfortunately, when the hunters become the hunted, the facade of their "sport" becomes apparent. The mindless pursuit of Russian roulette comes to represent war as an entity, in all of its random futility and psychologically devastating consequence.

While technically The Deer Hunter is fairly ordinary, in that the Vietnam scenes don't point one to the jungle, this is not crucial to the success of the film. The performances are everything and, thankfully, the cast is excellent, draining and economical. De Niro, the linchpin of the trio, is exceptionally satisfying, scaling the pinnacle of emotion. The scenes in which Mike returns home a hero, without choosing the honour, and feels compelled to avoid his welcome are tremendous. He seems blank, wiped clean by the struggle and distanced from old friends. Streep is equally impressive, allowing subtle needs to flit across her face as she tries to keep a lid on her bubbling psyche. In the third corner of this triangle, Walken is chillingly effective in his transformation. Psychologically ruined, he's a shell. Finally, the remaining players are just fine, with the acting of Cazale being particularly poignant.

Ultimately The Deer Hunter excels, paced to perfection and laced with one of the most memorable movie scores. This theme rises up throughout the film, a comforting constant, accompanied by smartly placed sound effects (such as the thudding of chopper blades announcing a shift to Vietnam). In detailing how war destroys individuals, relationships and communities, the story is moving, disturbing and sad. The waste of life is almost too much to bear, which is exactly why it's important to watch a film that takes this sort of approach - it leaves nowhere to hide.


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