Directed by Michael Cimino
Nominated for 9 Oscars, Won 5
Wins Include: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Chistopher Walken), Best Sound, Best Film Editing
The Deer Hunter is a 3 hour, 3 part film about a group of friends, Vietnam, and the affects of war on an individual and also a community. To try to explain this film without spoilers would be incredibly difficult, so I will try my best, but be warned.
We open to a small town in Pennsylvania. We have a large group of (male) friends who work in a mining factory. They work together, they go to the bar together, they go hunting together and spend just a lot of time together in general. However, this particular day will change them. Steve is getting married and the reception is doubling as a Farewell party to Michael, Steve and Nick, three of the buddies, who are leaving for Vietnam. While the opening sequence of the wedding and the last deer hunting trip that comes after is roughly an hour long, we get a grasp of this group of friends. Steve is somewhat naive but cheerful, he's marrying Angela who is pregnant with another man's child, but loves her all the same. Nick has a beautiful girlfriend named Linda, who is best friends with most of the guys. However, Michael, the macho man and leader of the gang, also seems to love Linda. We have others spattered in the group, but the movie goes on to mainly focus on Nick, Steve and Michael, as well as Linda in parts 1 and 3. But the beginning also puts into perspective the blind hopefulness and naivety about the war at hand. This is best instanced during the wedding when the guys see a soldier, in uniform, at the bar. They try to get him to tell them about Vietnam and what it's like over there. The soldier doesn't say much and obviously doesn't want to talk about it, but the guys (mainly drunk) push him. So the soldier raises his glasses and toasts to them "f**k it", several times before the guys leave. After the wedding, Michael and the guys love to hunt, but especially Mike. Mike believes in a "one shot" theory, saying you can only really properly kill the deer in one shot, anything more is unfair.
The second act has us abruptly opening on Vietnam. We have a Vietnamese man harshly shoot a young woman carrying a baby. Mike, who was asleep in some bushes near the village), uses the flame thrower on the shooter, killing him. Some helicopters land, and we see Nick and Steve, who are shocked to see Mike. We cut again to what is the most defining (and controversial) scene of the film. The three guys are now POW and are in the water under a bamboo hut while the Vietnamese soldiers are forcing the POW to play Russian Roulette, the Vietnamese betting on the outcome. It's utterly horrifying and grotesque. Steve is already suffering some sort of PTSD and can't stop crying when it's his turn to go up against Mike. Mike, solid as ever, urges him it will be okay. But when Steve shots, he's gotten the bullet, but tilts the gun, having the bullet just graze his scalp. For this, he is thrown into "the pit", which is a bamboo cage underwater with only a sliver of air at the top, filled with other dead bodies and rats. It's now just Nick and Mike left, and Nick is also starting to become unnerved. They decide to up the ante and get them to load the gun with three bullets instead of one. However, what the Vietnamese don't understand is Mike will use these three bullets to kill the guards, steal their machine guns, and kill their way out, rescuing Steve on the way. A helicopter comes to rescue the guys from the river, but only Nick manages to be rescued after Mike and Steve lose their grip trying to climb in. It's from here that the movie says a lot about the effects of war on individuals, communities and how we all deal with it.
I'm not going to try to get too much into the philosophy of this film. I was born long after the events of the film, and long after the film itself was released. I'm not American, so know extremely little (actually, pretty much nothing at all) about the Vietnam War. So much of this flew over me a little bit. However, The Deer Hunter is an extremely metaphorical film. The film itself is not actually about the events of Vietnam and this is what makes it still so powerful. But Mike, Nick and Steve deal with the events they experience in Vietnam very differently. While Russian Roulette never happened during the Vietnam war, it's what the game symbolizes that says a lot. It's like war and life itself, it's such a gamble but ultimately you still have fate in your own hands. You're making the choices that will kill you or keep you alive, but you often don't know what each decision will bring. As well, all three men reacted differently to the roulette itself. Steve was already suffering, and was reduced to quivering each time he heard the gun go off. He couldn't even give himself a clean "one shot". Nick, on the other hand starts strong but slowly starts to lose his cool with the increasing pressure of the game and slowly succumbs to something even more terrible later on. However Mike is stoic and calm, trying to help his friends get through, and focusing on survival, whereas both Nick and Steve are focused on the fact that they will probably die. This says a lot about their behaviors after the war has ended.
The film itself raised a lot of questions about the effects of war, the idea of "macho manliness", sacrifice for others and killing as a game. All the guys who go hunting, they all view hunting as a game. Some differently than others, but it's a game. And maybe the three who went off to war viewed it as a bit of a game too. This is especially shown when they are trying to talk to the soldier at the wedding but receive only a "f**k it" from him and don't understand. But they eventually do get to play a game and they realize what exactly is at stake. Nick, who is the only one to escape via helicopter thinks Mike and Steve are dead. However, he is now suffering extremely from his time in the field, but especially from the roulette sequence. Nick stays behind and starts playing roulette underground and is undefeated for several years. However, no one knows where he is. He has never come home. And (spoiler) he never does. Whereas Mike is still all about survival and looking out for his friends. He's wounded emotionally from the war but is not physically worse for the wear, but does not seem too proud of what he's done and spends a lot of time trying to deal with coming home and what exactly that means. And then there's poor Steve, who, after dropping from the helicopter, becomes a double amputee and is refusing to leave the Vet's hospital, leaving his wife practically comatose. And I think these are 3 of the various stages that takes people during the war. You either come home emotionally scarred, physically scarred, or you don't come home at all. And while these are pretty strong anti-war messages, they are definitely powerful to think about, especially considering the places the guys, especially Mike (who now can't take the "one shot" and kill anymore). The messages of the film are extremely strong, and it's what makes the movie as powerful as it is. The film doesn't spend anytime trying to explain the war or even tell you it's views and whether America should've been involved. And while the Vietnamese people seemed a little demonized, it's a film just to show, whether the war is worth it or not, everyone is effected.
As well, we have some incredibly fantastic performances. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and Meryl Streep are our stars. All four give out incredible performances. Meryl Streep, one of her earliest roles, gives a quiet, nuanced performance that was worth recognition and helped launch her career. John Savage was extremely under-appreciated in this film, and gave some incredible work in the Roulette scenes. How he was overlooked is beyond me. However, both Walken and De Niro give fantastic performances that solidly root the film. They are like brothers and are constantly looking out for each other. This is some of the best talent working together and it made the film much more life than it wouldn't have had otherwise. The film does some of it's best work by making this large group of friends seem real. It always felt real and like something you would actually do with your friends while out for a beer or at a wedding. The chemistry was great between everyone and this was one of the strongest parts of the film for me.
The roulette scene is indeed fantastic and really is the best part of the film. All the scenes are shot with master class and even the dull hunting scenes are given a grand background and are framed to perfection.
However, I mentioned this film is 3 hours long. While it definitely need to be a long film, much could've been cut. We have some gratuitously long shots that could easily be cut shorter. Things like characters walking, or getting a meal ready etc. Some trimming would've made the film a little bit more compact, but it still would've packed the punch it did. I won't lie and say I didn't get a little bored at points, but the questions it raises are worth the watch. Not a film for everyone, especially a stickler for historical accuracy (aka my husband!), but it's a film definitely worth seeing, and a film that portrays war and its effects so well.
Emotional Connection- 7.5/10
Overall Enjoyment- 8/10
Overall Package- 8/10