Deer Hunter, The (1978)
Release Date: December 8th, 1978 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Cimino Actors: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Rutanya Alda
rather lengthy opening sequence demonstrates the extreme conditions inside a Pennsylvania steel mill and the spirited attitudes and camaraderie of five reveling laborers anxious to down a few beers in preparation for Steven’s (John Savage) marriage that evening to Angela (Rutanya Alda), who is pregnant by another man. Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro) is the tough-love-believing, levelheaded one, a natural leader who daydreams of deer hunting and the ultimate goal of killing the animal with a single, humane shot. Nick (Christopher Walken) is his trusted partner; quieter and calm and the only one he appreciates hunting with; Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep), a bridesmaid who readies herself by waiting on her drunk father and taking a beating for her troubles, is secretly fancied by Mike. At the wedding, he can barely contain himself, and it doesn’t go entirely unnoticed. Stanley (John Cazale) is more serious and less playful, noticeably annoyed and momentarily violent during the festivities; John (George Dzundza) is clownish and quick to laugh at everything; and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) is the burly, bear-like goof.
Steve, Mike, and Nick are all set for military service in the Vietnam War, shipping out right after the weekend, enthusiastic about engaging in battle and dropping in where the bullets are flying. Patriotic and anxious, they couldn’t be less prepared for the atrocities they’ll soon encounter. The following day, the gang, excluding the newlywed, go deer hunting one last time, where it is again reiterated that Michael will be the best suited for the harsh environment into which the unwitting trio will shortly be plunged.
“Everything’s going so fast,” drunkenly slurs Mike, reminiscing over the moments leading up to their wartime embarkation, which is the exact opposite of the numerous but purposeful minutes actually extended to showcase idiosyncrasies and personas. Director Michael Cimino’s camera lingers for a long time on the five leads merrymaking, imbibing, listening to a good song, shooting pool, and generally enjoying themselves; later, the wedding and the reception are detailed and scrutinized extensively. It’s an exhaustive but effective method of building character development and demonstrating contrast. Once the film transitions to Vietnam, the pace becomes fiercely breakneck. All three main characters will be forced to adapt drastically to the brutality and pressures of war – one physically crumbling, one mentally buckling, and the third frenziedly enduring. And all three of the actors demonstrate award-worthy, powerful performances that are rarely matched onscreen.
After the final deer hunt, there’s a strikingly abrupt transition that finds Michael in the midst of combat, charred and bloodied on the battlefield, gradually regaining consciousness as explosions, death, and destruction erupt around him – just in time to activate a flamethrower against an enemy soldier. An army helicopter lands to unload Steven and Nick, who are surprised to locate the lone warrior. Seconds later, a bombing strike results in the trio being captured and imprisoned alongside South Vietnamese Army members in a watery bamboo dungeon. The various POWs are forced to play Russian roulette for sadistic gambling sport in one of the most frightening, intense, controversial, morbidly powerful, and truly unforgettable sequences ever filmed.
A decidedly bitter, realistic, and harrowing anti-war epic, “The Deer Hunter” goes in-depth to examine the liveliness of innocence and the tragic, shattering effects that war can impart. The physical toll, while damaging, is monstrously trumped by the mental catastrophes rendered. Reintegrating with humanity becomes a distinct impossibility, equally for those that returned whole or halved, paving the thematic and cinematographic way for Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon” and Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” In the end, there’s an excruciatingly futile rescue that breaks up the somber remembrance of the serenity and soothing isolation of quiet mountainside hunting – irreparably ruined by the varying detrimental responses to unimaginable stresses, yet masterfully softened by Stanley Myers’ moving “Cavatina” theme music, which sensationally presides over the most eloquent sequences.
– Mike Massie