When I picked The Deer Hunter for my July Blind Spot way back in December, I had little idea that the film and its maker, the unfortunate Michael Cimino, would come up in conversation so much in the months between. Cimino died on July 2nd of this year at 77, leaving a legacy of really only two films. One an epic Best Picture winner, a film widely acclaimed as a masterpiece. The other an epic flop of massive proportions that may also be a masterpiece...at least it is to some. I haven't seen it.
The Best Picture winner, of course, is what will be discussed here today, the 1978 Vietnam War epic, The Deer Hunter. Of the several Best Picture winners of the 1970s I haven't seen, this is the big one. The one I have put off for years and years because I knew the emotional devastation would be too much to bear. As it turns out, I knew too much, and I think it's a bit lost on me in the end.
In the mid-1960s, early morning, the shifts change at a Pennsylvania steel mill in a small Pennsylvania town. A group of young men head to the local dive for some beers. Steven (John Savage) is getting married later that night, the party has started. It includes, most importantly, Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken), two life-long best friends on their way to the Army and eventually Vietnam. Then there's the ones they pick on, the feeble Stan (John Cazale) and the larger than life John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren). They drink a lot that day, then put on tuxedos and head to the church for a wedding. They are all children of Russian immigrants and celebrate in the orthodox way.
Steven's bride Angela (Rutanya Alda) is pregnant with another man's baby, but he loves her anyway. Nick's girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep), is a bridesmaid, the town beauty. We sense that the quiet Michael has been secretly in love with her for years. They all drink. And dance. And talk. And drink some more. It all plays slowly, building depth of character. A soldier comes in for a drink. They want to know what it's like "over there." All he can say is "Fuck it!" They drink some more and later that night drive to the mountains into the wee hours to go deer hunting one last time.
Cimino takes his time in the early scenes, and, by the end of the first hour, we feel like we know these people, like, really know them. The Deer Hunter is a three-hour film in distinct acts of about an hour each with more devoted to the town and these people to the war itself. A decidedly brilliant move, for when the story drops us into the midst of the Vietnam War, it really does just that and only that. For Cimino, it appears that life is a series of moments. And the one central moment shared by Stevie, Mike, and Nick "over there" is one of, as Roger Ebert put it in his original 1978 review of the film, "the most horrifying sequences ever created in fiction." The three men are captured and forced to play Russian roulette for sport, as their captors place bets on who will get the bullet.
When the story shifts from that, it finds the three heroes of the film lost, broken, utterly ruined. For Stevie, it is the shame of coming home crippled, helpless, unwilling to leave the comfort of his hospital room. For Nick, it is the absolute destruction of his world view, keeping him in Vietnam forever, where he will become addicted to the very thing that destroyed him in the first place. For Michael, the strongest of them, it is the unwillingness to enjoy a welcome home he doesn't feel he deserves. He promised to brink Nick back. And he can't. And to add to that, he is still in love with Linda, who now clings to him, in each other so dulling each other's pain.
So much about The Deer Hunter works because it is simply such a handsomely well-made film. Cimino and also recently deceased cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond capture the small industrial setting perfectly, gorgeously. It feels cold there, steam and breath, a haze covering this world, both before and after the war rolls through. The interiors are working class. The bar. The American Legion hall. The trailer on the hill where Mike lives his meager life. The men drink Rolling Rock out of cans backed by with whiskey and vodka. The camera is all eyes, small communications of happiness or pain or fear, no matter the location, from the riverside hell pit in Vietnam to the wedding reception to the mountain hunting lodge.
The performances from all the actors, especially De Niro and Streep, are fully powerful. De Niro really does what he does best here, quiet, brooding, closed off but playing his face in such a way where we can actually see the emotion bubbling underneath. Streep is just lovely, plain and simple, and wears her character's pain in every breath and giggle, sigh and glance. John Savage chews up a bit too much scenery, but he seems the more dramatic of the crew anyway. Both Dzundza and Cazale (in his last role) provide emotional cores as smaller players for us to easily latch onto.
Walken's character, and the way he plays it and the way it was written, is the real conundrum for me. To start, I find Russian roulette as a symbol for the randomness of war to be strongly effective in that one iconic scene. I mean HOLY SHIT! That scene is every bit as gut-wrenching and vile as I have come to expect given that I've seen it a thousand times without having ever watched the movie. (All those damn AFI List shows when I was younger, man!) But as it plays out through the rest of the film, I just don't buy it. I have a hard time believing Russian roulette would become an addiction, especially given that the Nick character seemed the most confident and life-loving of the three. I would buy a drug or alcohol addiction, but I just find the fictionality of Russian roulette clubs miles away from the beautiful realities of this small town life. I really had trouble staying with the third act because of this and despite Streep and De Niro really taking off.
Obviously though, that's the point. The Deer Hunter is an astounding and devastating work of fiction. Cimino seems to have wanted to paint a vision of Vietnam that is as foreign as possible, totally surreal and disgustingly violent, an overcrowded, downtrodden land of despair. And he succeeded. And he succeeded in many other arenas, but I didn't love this movie and most likely won't ever watch it again.
In The Deer Hunter, I see Cimino's downfall. His follow-up, after taking two Oscars (for producing and directing) with this one, was the misguided, five-and-a-half-hour Western Heaven's Gate. A movie known for its lengthy sequences in town halls, etc. rife with perfect period detail. (Wait a minute! That's sounds like the first hour of The Deer Hunter.) Michael Cimino it seems was a true visionary, a man who hit big when he really shouldn't have (a three hour Vietnam movie with little war action but un-Godly violence that is mostly about people in a small town?), won big as a result, and then got all the final cut he would ever want. All it took was one more movie, and he was pretty much gone forever. That's the tragedy here. Michael Cimino, may he rest in peace, could obviously make gorgeous, lasting cinema. Alas, he took too much, got in his own way, and this one movie is pretty much all we have left. And, like I said, I probably won't watch it again. It's just too much.