More noise than signal

The Deer Hunter

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Having proved himself with a commercial hit in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Cimino was tapped up to develop a script that turned into the multiple Academy Award winning, AFI top 100 bothering movie The Deer Hunter. And yet, despite its fearsome reputation, it’s a film that’s completely failed to engage me the couple of times I’ve made an attempt to watch this. So, if nothing else this podcast presented a rationale for revisiting it.

The outline of the story, for those few who haven’t seen it, concerns itself with three Pennsylvanian steelworkers drafted into the Vietnam War, Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken). The first act establishes some characterisation through the act of Steven’s wedding, although for him it’s not much more than “guy who loves his wife”. Nick’s more of the shy, retiring type, although it’s not like Mike is overly rambunctious himself. The main difference seems to come from Mike’s love of and respect for the act of hunting, and is reluctance to put up with his other friends, particularly John Cazale’s Stan’s, lack of preparation and general tomfoolery.

The second abruptly moves to the chaos of Vietnam, with Steve, Mike and Nick being unexpectedly reunited in the heat of battle only to be captured by opposing forces who aren’t exactly abiding by the Geneva convention. They keep the gang in a POW camp that’s not so much riverside as submerged, pulling them out to play Russian Roulette against each other. Mike and Nick stage a daring escape, taking Nick with them, and eventually make it to the relative safety of the US Bases.

The third act starts with Mike’s troubles adjusting to domestic life as he returns to Pennsylvania, but after meeting the now amputee Steve he realises that Nick hasn’t returned home, but is sending Steve money from his earnings in what turns out to be the underground Russian Roulette circuit in Vietnam, which is a thing, apparently, as far as this film is concerned. Mike resolves to go back to Vietnam and extract his buddy, who’s clearly been more mentally affected than they realised.

Now, there’s two hours of great drama in The Deer_Hunter, but unfortunately it’s a three hour long film. I found the first hour no less boring this time around, and by itself that’s bad enough. I’d also argue, and I think I’m in the minority here, that it doesn’t serve its intended purpose of setting up the main characters all that well. For my money, it does a better job featuring John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren and Meryl Streep’s characters none of whom serve any particularly important purpose in the wider narrative. John Savage in particular gets very short shrift in the opening act, and I don’t think he’s grossly under-utilised over the bulk of the film.

Once the film has finished grinding you down with its tedious wedding procedural and hunting scenes that are as much about scenery porn than character development, there’s an immediately arresting and impactful drama that may not have any basis in realty, or make any attempt at balance, but as a statement of the horrors of war it’s hugely compelling.

The turns from Walken and De Niro really sells the story so well, especially those roulette scenes, and it reaffirms how great both these guys are when at the top of their game- both seeming content to slide into good humoured self-parody these days.

Cimino has a Kubrickian reputation for exactness, with all the reshooting and budget overruns that entails even from his days as a commercial director, and here without the notoriously efficient Eastwood on his back he didn’t leave until he got the shots he wanted. Generally that should be good news for an audience, as it proves here, as it frequently looks stunning indeed, across all its locations.

And, of course, this was a brave film to make at the time. There’s no shortage of films now that will tell you of the horrors of the Vietnam War, but there was thought to be no audience stomach for it, with it also being a little too soon for a mirror to be held up. Also here we see the questioning of how the American dream is holding up these days, in a way that’s clear but not overly explicit, again, somewhat controversial and not deemed audience friendly at the time. But this was a big success for Cimino, critically and commercially, and perhaps opened doors that were best left barred given what’s coming up next.

While I now have a much better understanding of what the fuss is about in the film, I still cannot wholeheartedly recommend people watch a film I think a full third of is garbage. So, I suppose that I two-thirds of a heartedly recommend it, and even then I think I’m screaming into the wind on this one.