THE DEER HUNTER

Directed by Michael Cimino. USA. 1978.


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The Deer Hunter follows the lives of three men before, during and after their time spent serving in Vietnam.  Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) live in a close-knit community and spend their days working at the local steel mill and going on hunting expeditions in the mountains.  However, their lives are forever changed by the experiences that they go through in Vietnam- most notably, being forced by the Vietcong to play Russian Roulette.  Before leaving Vietnam, the trio are split up, with Michael returning home alone.  Upon his return, he finds it difficult to relate to those who have not experienced war but, despite this, he soon discovers that he has been luckier than Steve and Nick, with the former having suffered severe physical and mental trauma and the latter missing and presumed dead.  However, Michael suspects that Nick is not dead and has, in fact, become embroiled in the seedy and dangerous world of gambling back in Vietnam.  Now, he decides to return to Vietnam and seek out Nick, in order to make him see sense before his luck finally runs out.

Upon the release of this film, Michael Cimino was considered to be a talented director who held great promise.  It is a shame, then, that he would never again make a successful film- something that is hard to believe when watching The Deer Hunter.  Then again, perhaps this was part of the problem: after making a film as exceptional as this, it must have been extremely difficult to match its success in any subsequent effort.  Another possible explanation is that all the praise heaped on this film caused Cimino to become complacent or egotistical: a viewpoint that the Heavenís Gate fiasco seems to support.  Whatever the reason, Ciminoís swift decline remains one of the great mysteries of the filmmaking world.  Still, at least he had one masterpiece in him, with The Deer Hunter proving an enduring success.

The central performances are undoubtedly vital in conveying the emotional journeys that the characters go through in this film.  Robert De Niro is the viewerís main point of identification and he proves a likeable and courageous yet realistic character.  This courage is particularly evident in his scenes with Walken and Savage, in which he constantly reassures them.  However, he is neither an all-conquering one man army nor a martyr: he covets his friendís girlfriend, finds it hard to adjust to life back in America and it ultimately powerless to help Nick.  As such, the character seems more plausible, multi-faceted and human.  De Niro also effectively conveys the emotions of a veteran upon returning home: he does not voice his alienation yet, through his actions and expressions, it is clear what he is feeling.  His scenes with Meryl Streep are likewise filled with quiet emotion, with Streep also proving successful in this respect and creating a sympathetic character.  Christopher Walken, meanwhile, is thoroughly believable throughout, whether it is his fear during his forced participation in Russian Roulette, the emotional turmoil that he feels while at hospital in Vietnam, or the dead-eyed figure that he becomes towards the end of the film.  Just as effective is John Savage, in what must have been a very difficult role, and Stevenís terror prior to and during the Russian Roulette is palpable.  Likewise, his post-war scenes feature a delicate portrayal whereas, in other hands, they could have been distasteful.  

One of the criticisms voiced about this film centres on its running time, with some feeling that it is slow-starting and overstays its welcome.  However, the pre-war section of the film, specifically Stevenís wedding, is necessary in order to effectively juxtapose pre and post-war life.  In order for us to notice and understand the feelings of the characters after they have returned from war, we must first establish what life was like before Vietnam.  The audience reaction to the film depends to a large extent on what the oneís expectations are.  If one is expecting a combat based war movie that takes place in the thick of the action, then The Deer Hunter is likely to be a disappointment.  In order to find the film a satisfying experience, one must understand what type of film it is and that the scenes of war are only a small part of the final product.  Like Coming Home (which was also released in 1978), the film addresses the trauma and confusion that soldiers experienced when returning home, illustrating that war does not necessarily end for a person once they are no longer physically immersed in it.  As the film is so rich in character and emotion, one becomes absorbed in the characterís lives and the film does not feel overlong.  Perhaps the pre-war section could have been shortened slightly and still succeed in making its point, but a drastically shorter running time and a faster pace would not suit the tone of the film and would not allow us to become as attached to the characters.

The visuals enhance the emotional content of the film and prove sweeping, giving the film an impressive, epic tone.  The mountaintop scenes in particular are breathtaking and rich in natural beauty, which is necessary in order to illustrate the importance of the hunting scenes.  It is these scenes that used to show the effect that the war has had on Michael: initially, he was a keen hunter who could kill a deer in one shot but, after returning from Vietnam, he chooses not to shoot a deer.  As such, the visuals heighten the tranquil atmosphere, which serves as a contrast with warfare.

It would not be true to say that the film is perfect: it presents a rather one-sided portrayal of the Vietnamese and is lacking political awareness.  However, it is not the filmís intention to go into politics: it is, first and foremost, about the relationships between people.  The ending, meanwhile, is open to personal interpretation.  If one believes that the singing of the national anthem is used in a patriotic way, then it will almost certainly seem unrealistic and propagandist.  More likely, however, is that Cimino intended the anthem to be used in an ironic way.  Certainly, the characters do not wear patriotic expressions when singing it and for them to feel nationalistic after all that they have been through would be rather unlikely.  Consequently, it seems more probable that characters are either mocking jingoism or making a forced and unsuccessful attempt at mustering up national pride.   

Still shocking and thought-provoking after all these years, The Deer Hunter stands as a well-acted, cinematic and affecting piece of cinema and one thatís images and themes linger long after the end credits role.  It may not be to all tastes and one would be hard pressed to call it a fun film to watch, but it is still an undeniably powerful experience.
 
Lucinda Ireson
 
 
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