The Deer Hunter (1978)
From one of the last director who was really let loose with a vision, ignoring costs in favor of the what Michael Cimino wants on-screen. Something that he got right when it came to The Deer Hunter (1978) a film that sometimes doesn’t need words to explain is going on visually, Thank god for Stanley Myers tender score that fills in the sensitive gaps of the brutal film that sees a group of men torn apart and brought back together again in ways they had not first imagined.
What begins as a group of friends in an industrial town in Pennsylvania who are celebrating the marriage of Steven (John Savage) to Angela (Rutanya Alda) is the beginning of the end of an era for a group of friends that they will never be able to return to. We see at the wedding so much hope and future in this strong group of men who regularly go off deer hunting together. Something which we see twice over the course of the film. Each hunt is quite different. First there is a real rivalry between the men, able to play-fight and boast, It’s your average chance of male bonding over a male activity to prove your manliness. Before three of them head over to fight in Vietnam going with Steven into a world of horror that will change them all are Michael (Robert De Niro) who really looses himself in the moment, flying off the handle, a spell in the army would do him good. Whilst the more level-headed of the three Nick (Christopher Walken) is quietly confident, not really knowing what awaits him in the tropical hell created by his own country. And so ends the first third of what seems like a drawn out film to develop these men which we will see change.
The tone of the film dramatically alters in the blink of an eye to a lush green landscape of Vietnam which finds Michael clearly in his element, embracing the war, whilst he doesn’t know it could push him over the edge to somewhere he can’t return. Surrounded by rebels who are fighting for their freedom from the American invaders we see another side of what they were capable of. If Apocalypse Now (1979) painted a surreal image of the conflict where the soldiers escaped to, The Deer Hunter depicts the enemies infiltrating the mind of the soldier. A version of Russian Roulette is the rebels game of choice, spinning the gun around a table for the prisoners to play with their own lives. An extreme form of mental torture for both natives and Americans who are at the mercy of others who become god.
Every time the game’s played the audience’s sent into a state of dread, at any moment someone could shoot themselves cold dead, just by pulling the trigger, hoping that the barrel of the gun was empty. The stakes are raised and the game of chance becomes hope of surviving. This game is the catalyst in the three mens short lives on this earth, Before taking their chance to escape, the suffering is far from over. A glimmer of hope from their comrades is short-lived, if only giving the audience a moment of relief.
The real damage is starting to make itself known to us and them. Whilst Michael the one we believe will become unstable is the level-headed soldier who makes it back home. Where he finds the woman Linda (Meryl Streep) both he and Nick have fought over. A Woman who knows she has the attention of two men who hope to return and love her. One to marry (Nick) whilst the other (Michael) to have an affair. There’s real sexual tension between Michael and Linda and at the same time respect for Nick who has yet to return. Throwing into that, Michael is still adjusting to civilian life, something that takes real-time happen. The film gives him that time, we see a changed man, no longer a reckless man who will flip, more thoughtful, but still there is moment when you can see the damage his time in Vietnam have done to him.
There’s a need to reunite the gang who have now been apart for so long, with a maturer Michael he seeks out Steven who appears to have no returned from the war. Only his wife knows where he is, leaving her in a state of constant shock, no longer the happy bride we saw early, now with a child left in the care of the larger family. WE later find him in a veterans home, we are shocked to see he has become one of the many wounded to come home, hiding his shame, unable to the man who Angela may have wanted, we don’t know for sure.
The mission is not complete until Nick is safely back at home, return to Vietnam to find the awol man in what has become one of the most iconic scenes in cinema, and one of the most dramatic changes in characters, transformed from the level headed to the disturbed, now adapted to live on the edge of live on a nightly basis, a form of survival, it could even be said it was an addiction, needing the thrill of being on the edge of life every night, relying on luck to save you.
A tender film that sees a group of friends who are torn apart and brought back together again in ways they did not imagine. Filled with breathtaking scenes and imagery, the world can be a beautiful place, yet within it there are dark places where you can return with new perspectives on life. Even those back home who never went out there feel the pain from those who return. An incredible that shocks you to your core, and brings you to your knees at times. It could be seen as another great film for just De Niro, yet the supporting cast have so much to give, no one is left behind. Something not to be missed.
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