The Deer Hunter Review
When 'The Deer Hunter' was released into the cinemas back in 1978, it caused a great deal of controversy, most notably through the depiction of scenes involving Russian roulette, where a revolver is loaded with a bullet, the chamber spun and then two people take turns at pointing it at their own head and pulling the trigger. Initially it is part of a torture scene in the movie, but later it is featured as a game of chance.
While the scenes of people having their brains blown out impressed many an underage teenage loon who managed to sneak in to see it, I decided that it really wasn't for me. It seemed to me, at the time, to be no more than sensationalism and similar to some cheaply produced 'snuff' movies that followed it.
Now, 30 years later, I've had the chance to see the movie on Blu-ray and perhaps with the benefit of maturity can partly understand why it garnered 5 statuettes at the 1979 Oscars ceremony.
It's a film in three acts and to help comprehend its structure you really need to watch the interview with director Michael Cimino, included on the disc among the extras.
His view is that war is all about long periods waiting for random death, then when violence erupts it happens suddenly and is over quickly. Consequently there's the aftermath to deal with. Some people die, some survive with physical damage while others are left with mental health issues. So that's our three acts.
It explains the long, drawn out Wedding sequence which many people find quite tedious, based as it is in the grim Pennsylvania steel town environment. We're introduced to the characters, but in a remote way - almost like a 'fly on the wall' documentary. Among the cast, we have the very best - Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken together with a young and beautiful Meryl Streep.
We pick up on the fact that a group of guys plan to go hunting right after the Wedding and this will be their last taste of freedom before going to Vietnam.
Everything is played out at a leisurely pace. We get to understand that De Niro's character, Mike, has a very disciplined approach to his hunting, proclaiming that the deer must be taken with just one bullet. As the guys relax in their hunting lodge, one of them finds a piano and they're all in a reflective, thoughtful mood.
Then BANG. We're right in the middle of the war zone as De Niro and company engage the enemy in a jungle village. This cut to the second act is so sudden that I thought the disc had skipped a few chapters. Explosions are going off in the fields around the village. De Niro uses a flame thrower on the Viet-Cong. There's gunfire, then suddenly it's over. The story moves on apace and the three guys - Mike, Nick (Christopher Walken) & Steve (John Savage) - are captured by the enemy and forced to take part in the infamous Russian roulette torture sequence. This links to Mike's discipline about a deer having to be killed by just one bullet. It also serves as a parallel for Cimino's view of war. The stress of waiting to be hauled up into the shack to take part in the sick game. The apprehension of waiting for the round in the chamber to be fired or not. The effect it has on the mind, the body and life itself.
The third act concerns the aftermath with the return of Mike to the small steel town. What happens to Steve? What happens to Nick? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.
The work of Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond should be saluted here as he found himself in many difficult situations for a cameraman, like not having enough power for his lighting in dark night shoots in Saigon, like having to light a scene with a single domestic light bulb, like having to degrade the beautiful Eastman Colour Negative to boost the grain and desaturate the image to produce the look required by his director. This is true 'guerrilla' film making. In some scenes the 35mm footage had to be made to look rough so that it would not look incongruous when intercut with 16mm news footage. Well, they succeeded.
As for the performances, it's hard to say that you get close to or get to like the characters as much of the tale is told in wide shots. But you get to understand that Mike does what he feels he has to do and is generally not the emotional type. Nick too is generally cold. All the same, we're watching them and judging them as their characters, so we are not aware that they are acting - which means they have succeeded in their tasks.
Director, Cimino, seems to have pulled off a major coup in getting the film made in the first place. No American studio would touch it, so it was produced by EMI in their brief foray into film making. Of the three films they made, 'The Deer Hunter' was thought to be the one least likely to be successful. Funding was agreed after a 90 minute pitch by Cimino to Lord Bernard Delfont. That's how it was done in those days.
On his directorial style, Cimino aimed for a documentary feel and he encouraged his cast to experiment, very often straying from the script and the written dialogue. This has kept it fresh and alive, without the use of poetic language - so in this case, it worked.
Overall, 'The Deer Hunter' is a film that I'm glad I have seen, although I can't honestly say I enjoyed it. It's a very thought provoking piece and isn't so much an anti-war film as one about the effect that war has on people and whole communities.
You'll have gathered that there aren't many laughs in 'The Deer Hunter'.
If you can outlast the lengthy Wedding sequence, you'll be hooked as the movie cuts fast to the second act.
There's plenty to think about in 'The Deer Hunter' and if a movie can cause us to think and reflect, then it has achieved something special.