The Deer Hunter (1978)
Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker
Directed by Michael Cimino
While this was intended to kick off my Meryl Streep retrospective, I wouldn’t consider it a Streep movie. Oh, she’s definitely a crucial supporting character in the story, and I will talk about her performance, but this film is more a prologue to that series. This is more a Robert DeNiro/Christopher Walken movie, and it is a damn good one. It hasn’t necessarily aged perfectly, and it’s not my favorite film about the Vietnam War, but it is a well-acted, intense, and beautifully tragic movie.
In Pennsylvania’s steel mill country, we meet a group of friends about to ship out to Vietnam in the late 1960s. Mike (DeNiro) is the protagonist of the picture, a quiet man fixated on deer hunting and not having any significant relationships outside of his male friends. Mike and his pals celebrate the wedding of Steve, one of the three men going overseas to fight in the war. The whole affair takes place in an Eastern Orthodox church followed by a raucous, drunken party at the American Legion Hall.
Months later, the trio is held captive by the Viet Cong, forced to take part in a series of Russian roulette games. Steve’s mind is broken while Nick (Christopher Walken) is resigned to die. Only Mike attempts to keep hope alive and manages to kill their captors and help them escape. They are separated in the process, and Mike returns to the States, unsure of what happened to Nick. Mike finds he has difficulty going back to his own life, falling in love with Linda (Meryl Streep), Nick’s girlfriend. Eventually, the specter of Nick hangs over his head so much that Mike has to return to Vietnam to find him.
There are moments in The Deer Hunter of sheer cinematic beauty. The opening shots of Clairton, Pennsylvania, frames the town perfectly, the camera dolly guiding us into this place. Later, the camera frames the misty mountains of the northern Appalachians as something out of a mystic legend. Director Michael Cimino is highly aware of the archetypal nature of his story, making nods to the storied reverence for warriors across cultures. The structure of the film is broken into three distinct acts: The Wedding. The War. The Funeral. It’s the cycle of life, tragically and beautifully told.
Christopher Walken’s performance is the stand out for me out of a bevy of strong actors. It’s no surprise he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The character of Nick shifts through a spectrum of emotions from feeling like an invincible young man before shipping out, slowly realizing the horror of his condition while a captive, and finally feeling his mind snap from trauma in a military hospital in Saigon. When he finally reappears in the final act, it is as bleak and dark as you would expect. His story can only end in a horrific tragedy that he had no real power over preventing.
DeNiro is muted in a way that he has mastered. His contemporary work typically involves him being more boisterous or playing broad comedy. Here we are reminded of the deep sensitivity the actor possesses, he’s more than a Raging Bull. I am always an advocate of saying the best acting is done without dialogue, and DeNiro gets multiple opportunities to put this on display. War brings out his emotions, and when he returns to Pennsylvania, we watch him withdraw into himself once again.
Meryl Streep is given a sadly underdeveloped role. We get a single scene that sets up her place as the abused daughter of an old drunk. That story is never returned to as she can move into Mike & Nick’s house while they are gone. Linda exists as a symbol of the hopeful future, a possible love for Mike, and we never see if it is realized or not. Cimino asked Streep to write additional dialogue for the character, knowing that Linda was underwritten. I think Streep does an excellent job with what she is given, but more depth on the page would have gone a long way.
The Deer Hunter is not perfect. Cimino was a very self-indulgent director, and that came with its good points and bad. The film clocks in at over three hours, and it feels like it. Many sequences go on for too long, while others are edited sloppily. There are some moments in the second act that lack the kind of continuity needed to make complete sense. We see the men fighting in the field and then cut to them being held prisoners with no clear transition from one place to the other. Scorsese gave us the three-hour-long The Irishman, which I would argue, makes better use of its time and is a tighter picture than The Deer Hunter. I would suggest Apocalypse Now or Coming Home for a great Vietnam film first, but The Deer Hunter is still important and a brilliantly made film.