With the death of Michael Cimino last week I thought I’d revisit his greatest (only) triumph, The Deer Hunter, which I hadn’t seen since its first release. Time has not been great to this film, which I still find to be over-rated and over-rewarded.
The story of three Russian-Americans from the a steel-mining town in Pennsylvania who go off to fight in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter mixes an odd kind of sensationalism (the Russian roulette sequences) with a fake sense of community. I have no idea what a company town in Pennsylvania was like in the early ’70s, but I’ll bet it doesn’t feel like this. Most of the scenes in the early part of the film felt like a beer commercial.
The three main characters are Mike (Robert De Niro), a sphinx-like man who is buttoned so tight it’s amazing he has friends; Christopher Walken as Nick, a kind of popular guy, and Stan (John Savage), who is getting married. There are a few other guys who are friends, notably John Cazale, who still has Fredo Corleone in his system (a scene in which De Niro won’t lend him his boots seems very Godfather-ish). The lone female character with anything to do is Meryl Streep as Nick’s girlfriend, but she starts to feel warm towards Mike, though he does nothing to indicate why that should be.
The first act ends abruptly, with the guys finding themselves together in a North Vietnamese prison camp, where they are forced to play Russian roulette. This scene is the best in the film, full of gut-wrenching suspense, but it is extremely controversial because it is made out of whole cloth–there is no recorded instance of Viet Cong employing this method of torture. I wonder how Americans would feel if the North Vietnamese, or the Japanese or Germans, for that matter, made a film about Americans making their prisoners play the game.
Interestingly, Russian roulette was the core of the script. It was originally a film about guys in Vegas playing it, and it was transplanted into a movie about Vietnam. The Deer Hunter was one of the first films to deal with Vietnam, although it is completely apolitical–it might as well have been World War II or Korea, as there is no mention of anyone opposing the war or what it stands for.
The third act follows De Niro home, where he fumbles into a relationship with Streep, finds Savage in a VA hospital, missing both legs, and then goes back to find Walken in Saigon, where he is addicted to Russian roulette. Here’s a problem–Russian roulette is not a game of skill–it is completely luck. It is impossible to think Walken could have survived more than a few games of playing it, certainly not long enough to earn a nickname–“The American.”
Finally the film ends after a funeral, with the assembled singing “God Bless America.” What are we to make of this? Is this completely ironic, a passive/aggressive way for Cimino to be political, or is it sincere? Again, it feels like a commercial, like “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”
I haven’t mentioned the deer hunting scenes. De Niro is almost mystical about it, not the kind of guy who hunts as a communal experience just to drink beer. He takes it super seriously, and talks about how the deer must be killed with one shot. That “one shot” is repeated later, in one of the many obvious points of the film. Others include the spilled wine on Savage’s bride’s dress (meaning bad luck) and the choir music used for De Niro walking through the forest. We know the forest is like a cathedral for him, we don’t need the redundancy.
The Deer Hunter has fine qualities, such as Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography and Walken and Streep’s performances (Walken won an Oscar and it was the first of umpteen nominations for Streep), but mostly I found it to be a faux epic. Cimino studied Scorsese and Coppola and this is what he came up, but he lacked their authenticity. I never saw Heaven’s Gate but if it is the disaster many say it is then I wouldn’t be surprised after seeing The Deer Hunter.