The Deer Hunter: Unapologetically Brutal

When it comes to war movies, The Academy has a love affair with them. And why not? War, as horrible as it may be, is a treasure trove of stories that illustrate man’s greatness and man’s folly. In fact, even in this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees, there are two war movies and possibly a third: Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and The Post.

But when it comes to ware movies themselves, there are also no shortages of cliches. We all know that war isn’t kind and war is brutal to both its belligerents and innocent civilians. But, balancing all these things and making a good show is hard. Making it unbelievable is damn near impossible.

This Best Picture winner, The Deer Hunter, sees director Michael Cimino’s 1978 attempt at all of the above. And he nails it. The 51st winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture is as grandiose as it is heartbreaking, as tense as it is tender, and as brutal as it is beautiful.

No, The Deer Hunter is not for the faint of heart. It follows three Russian-American steel mill workers from the Allegheny Mountains in rural Pennsylvania. Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steve (John Savage) shop off for Vietnam following Steve’s Russian Orthodox wedding. The first hour of the film shows the three men on top of the world, in the prime of life. The final, and brutal, two hours show them grittily dealing with the horrors of Vietnam, the slow obliteration of young innocence, and their desperate battles for their individual souls.

But, there’s another element to The Deer Hunter that hits home, almost literally. What does a small town like that do if its sons, its very future, dies in an oft-maligned war? Well, it loses itself, too. Meryl Streep, in one of her first roles, plays Linda, Nick’s lover, who is left, like all the other vets and their families, to pick up the pieces of a ruined life. She wonders what life could have been like if this war hadn’t gobbled up, shredded, and abused those caught up in it. It’s difficult to see a silver lining in a film that demonstrates the sheer ruination of war. But, it’s there.

I couldn’t figure out if The Deer Hunter was pro-war or anti-war; if it was for America or against it. But, I’m not sure that matters at all. It’s not there to be anyone’s high horse, but rather just to be there for us, to force us to look deep into ourselves when we see the face of unspeakable violence.

Now, for the rest of the story. Just as a warning, most of these clips are full of obscenities and, in some cases, very disturbing.

Plot

Perhaps the most jarring part about The Deer Hunter’s narrative is the sheer irony that litters the story. As I mentioned above, the full first third of the film lures you into a false sense of security and makes you feel that everything might end up okay. But, in what is basically a jump cut, you’re thrust into the dark world of Vietnam. One minute, you’re celebrating a wedding and the next, soldiers are throwing grenades into small shelters full of women and children and roasting each other with napalm.

There are other signs of this, too. Linda comes from a troubled family and suffers abuse at the hands of her drunkard father. She’s a bridesmaid in the wedding and she endures the wedding in a stunning pink gown. Yet, she’s got a large bruise on her face from her father’s latest tirade.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the most famous and most controversial element of The Deer Hunter: the Russian Roulette scenes. The initial scene (warning, this video is disturbing) in the POW camp in which Mike, Nick, and Steve are all being held is nothing short of a masterpiece. And yet, it’s one of the hardest scenes in any movie for me to watch. I couldn’t look away. Obviously, this game is a metaphor for war’s brutality and unpredictability. But, it also speaks to the very nature of war. Soldiers really only have two fates when it comes to combat: to die a horrible death or you somehow live but you’re never the same. You’re shattered. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

The Deer Hunter earned its writer, Deric Washburn, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And it’s a worthy honor. This film is almost exclusively about uneducated blue collar folks and the script reflects that. It’s got enough grammatical errors to give an English teacher nightmares.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the script, though, is how often the dialogue doesn’t actually go anywhere. When Mike, Nick, Steve, and their other friends are together, they cover a lot of topics quickly and superficially. They talk about hunting, women, and the war. While the subjects may changes for each of us when we’re with friends in our own lives, we don’t always have to have meaningful conversations. Washburn captures this casual conversational tic perfectly and adds a lot of authenticity to the film. 1.

Sound

The Academy Award for Best Sound in 1978 went to The Deer Hunter, and, like the narrative, the sound was jarring and full of irony. On the sound effects side, we return to a more modern feel in this film, rather than the canned studio sounds we heard the last two weeks. Helicopters, bullets, bombs, and noises from steel mills help fill your ears with layers of authenticity.

Stanley Myers composed the score for this movie and it was nothing short of brilliant. Much of the score featured hymn-like tracks, heavy with vocals. Thrown up against dramatic backgrounds, like landscapes, it helped to fill in the gaps and pulled me into the scene that much more. We, as humans, are so attuned to hear the human voice clearly that we don’t even realize it. But the choir helped add a special human element to this film. 1.

Set Design

When the film was in Pennsylvania, it often took place in a trailer house or a simple main street in the shadow of a Russian Orthodox church. The decorations in the trailer house, especially, were representative of those people that lived there, Mike and Nick. It was a bachelor pad, festooned with trophies and beer cans.

But, obviously, included in my analysis of the set are the physical locations where this movie was actually shot. Cimino tried to get this movie as authentic and as close to the real thing as he could. The small Pennsylvania town was really in Ohio, in the middle of the Rust Belt. The jungles of Vietnam were the jungles of Thailand, and the River Kwai was featured prominently. Again, this is all about authenticity, and the dedication to the “feel” of the movie was tremendous. 1.

Cinematography

Vilmos Zsigmond got an Oscar nomination for shooting The Deer Hunter, and it’s a true shame that he didn’t win. We don’t normally think of war movies as beautiful works of art, but this one was. Again, the irony.

Zsigmond used a lot of low angles to show this story. He also utilized foreground and background shots. There’s one in particular in which De Niro is on the left side of the shot and then Christopher Walken, on the right side, turns his head and almost looks directly into the camera. This is an upsetting visual to us viewers because the person in the foreground is often manipulated by the camera, and their face is distorted in such a way that Walken almost feels huge and uncomfortably close to you.

The most beautiful cinematic element, though, was his extremely unbalanced, artistic, long-shots. These were prevalent when the story moved to the mountains. Each shot is composed just like a happy Bob Ross painting. But the camera also lingers on these shots, allowing you to take in all their beauty, and it’s almost calming. 1.

Acting

While there are good performances all across the board, I could write 3,000 words just talking about each one of the actors. So, instead, I’ll focus on De Niro, Walken, and Streep.

Robert De Niro plays Michael, the brooding meathead of a protagonist. This role earned him a Best Actor nomination. Mike is the quiet, yet the resolute leader of the group. He proves himself to be a resourceful soldier in the field. But, it’s after Mike returns home that De Niro really shines.

Since going back to Pennsylvania, Mike constantly finds himself at odds with what he wants to do and what he’s able to do. He struggles, like many vets do, with adapting to being home, lost in a world which is the same yet totally different. Nobody understands him or what he’s been through. Even though he’s an avid deer hunter, he can’t bring himself to kill on after the war, having witnessed enough death and destruction of life. He spends the final act of the film trying to reclaim something, anything, of his past innocence, but he only finds that it always slips frustratingly through his fingers.

Christopher Walken’s Nick is certainly the wisest person in the film. He’s introspective and always has a different take on life than his peers. This perspective leads Nick down a dark path where he loses himself in the weeds of constant despair and he gives up on his life long before the film’s climax. Walken’s performance is one of his best and it won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Meryl Streep earned her first of a record 21 Oscar nominations for her role as Linda. As always, Streep steals the show any time she’s on-screen. Linda is a troubled but sweet woman who must bear the brunt of Mike’s struggles in this new world he finds himself in. There’s a quiet resilience to her character and this role was classic Streep. She even had to write her own lines for the film, which is a huge plus in my book. 1.

Directing

Week in and week out, directing is single-handedly the hardest thing to write about. This is because everything that I’ve already mentioned, plus so much more, falls into the hands of the director. All things cinema must go through the director.

However, this week is somewhat of a different story. This week is fairly easy in comparison.

The Deer Hunter is Michael Cimino’s masterpiece. The saga of the Vietnam War, the epic of this horrific war, deserves a grand epic of a story, full of courage and imagination. This film has plenty of that.

By no means is The Deer Hunter a perfect movie, not even close. But it doesn’t have to be. Its job is to demonstrate what the war was like for too many Americans. It’s designed to make you feel something and it’s a tour-de-force of in-your-face, brutal storytelling. It’s so full of symbolism that I could write a book about it.

Additionally, Cimino drew me in from the opening shot and managed to keep me entertained for 183 minutes. I hid under my blanket, was kept on the edge of my seat at times because of the tension. I even gagged when there was too much blood. I certainly liked this movie right away, but I only understood it after intense reflection. This one left me with a funny taste in my mouth. That’s my kind of movie. 1.

Bonus Points

I’m giving this movie a 10, plain and simple. An extra point goes to the cinematography because it was just so beautiful. Another point to Michael Cimino for his excellent handling of the material.

Finally, I have to give an extra point to John Cazale, who played Stan, one of the buddies of Nick, Mike, and Steve. During filming, he was dying from lung cancer, and that was a fact known to few on set. Several members of the cast, including Streep and De Niro, negotiated to keep him around. This was his last movie and he never saw the final product. He died on March 12, 1978, in New York at the age of 42.

Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts

The Deer Hunter won the 51st Academy Award for Best Picture on April 9, 1979, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The ceremony was hosted by Johnny Carson for the first time. The Deer Hunter beat out Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, and The Unmarried Woman for Best Picture. John Wayne, in his final public appearance before his death just weeks later, presented the Award. In all, The Deer Hunter was nominated nine times and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound, Best Film Editing.

Jon Voight won Best Actor for Coming Home, Jane Fonda won Best Actress for Coming Home, and Maggie Smith won Best Supporting Actress for California Suite. Smith is the only person to win an Oscar by playing an Oscar loser.

Final Notes

The nominees for the 90th Academy Awards have finally been announced! I can’t wait for the March 4 ceremony. Here’s the complete list of nominees in all categories. The Best Picture nominees are Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The event is hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. In the coming weeks, I hope to post some updates of the run-up to the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre.

Next week, I’ll review one of my favorite movies and one of the most discussed films in recent memory, No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 Best Picture winner. After that, it’s The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Dances with Wolves, My Fair Lady, Casablanca, and then The Greatest Showman.

13 Comments

  1. Wonderful review Keltin, thank you! I have seen this movie and it was very good but so disturbing I don’t believe I’ll watch it again, but I did enjoy your review very much.

    Liked by 2 people

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