The winner of five Oscars and one of the best-remembered movies of the ’70s, The Deer Hunter has undeniable strengths. The acting is across-the-board great, with Christopher Walken earning an Academy Award for the film’s crucial supporting role; Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep were nominated for the male and female leading roles, respectively, and John Cazale and John Savage both contribute mesmerizing work. The film’s level of intensity, once the story kicks into gear, is so high that many find the film too painful to watch. On every technical plane, the movie is gorgeous to behold, with immaculate costuming and production design filling cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s Oscar-nominated imagery to create a rich visual experience. And, finally, since The Deer Hunter was one of the first big-budget movies to address the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder as a major issue for veterans returning from the Vietnam War, it has historical importance.
Having said all that, The Deer Hunter hasn’t aged well, and in fact its flaws were apparent to some discerning viewers back when the movie was new. First off, director and co-writer Michael Cimino’s storytelling is wildly undisciplined. The first hour of the picture, which introduces a group of male friends living in a Pennsylvania steel town, drags on endlessly. Although Cimino’s scheme of immersing viewers in mundane details of his characters’ lives before moving the story to Vietnam is sensible, Cimino ends up delivering the same information over and over again, resulting in tedium. In particular, the interminable sequence depicting the wedding of wide-eyed Steven (Savage) to his pregnant sweetheart unfolds in what feels like real time. Amid this narrative muck, De Niro’s character, Michael, emerges as the de facto leader of the group, an autodidactic tough guy whom the others fear and respect in equal measure.
A long sequence of the male friends bonding for one last deer hunt before deploying to Vietnam has great visual poetry, but it’s jarring that the sequence was obviously shot in the Pacific Northwest (specifically, Washington state) even though it supposedly takes place in Pennsylvania. The movie really goes off the rails, however, after an abrupt mid-movie shift to Vietnam. For the remainder of the movie, the vicious game of Russian roulette becomes the dramatic focus, first when American POWs are forced to play the game by their animalistic captors, and then when Nick (Walken) becomes a champion Roulette player working the postwar Vietnamese underground. Michael is a kind of battlefield superhero during the POW scenes, and the manner in which he rescues his buddies stretches believability. Yet the story becomes even more audacious when Michael returns to postwar Vietnam in order to rescue Nick, who has become so traumatized, almost to the point of catatonia, that he plays Russian roulette for money.
It turns out there’s a good reason why none of this hangs together particularly well. Producer Michael Deeley reportedly hired Cimino to expand a non-Vietnam script about Russian roulette into the story that eventually became The Deer Hunter. Perhaps reflecting this hodgepodge approach, the Russian roulette material is so overwrought, and so demeaning to the Vietnamese national character, that it completely derives the film of dramatic restraint and historical accuracy. Whether historical accuracy was ever the goal is another question, but The Deer Hunter ends up being an uncomfortable hybrid of incompatible narrative elements, and also a needlessly repetitive movie that slogs through 183 minutes of boredom and brutality. There are incandescent moments, mostly due to the valiant work of a remarkable cast, but in sum, The Deer Hunter is pretentious, sloppy, unpleasant, and not just a little racist.
The Deer Hunter: FUNKY