Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

Director: Michael Cimino
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep

"One shot."

I never really thought about the psychological ramifications of Russian Roulette before I saw The Deer Hunter. The wait once you pull the trigger – the second that lasts for an eternity – must feel agonizing. This film, focusing on three friends who get sent off to Vietnam, has this as a central theme. De Niro, Walken and Savage find themselves forced by brutish Vietcong to play Russian Roulette for sport, with their lives on the line. Even though they all escape with their lives, they find themselves traumatized and changed as they come back home.

Really, even without the Russian Roulette angle this story would be believable and tragic. That just adds cinematic flair, making for a symbolic point to draw in the viewer. This is a long, long movie, stretching out to the 3 hour mark, and worth every second of it. It starts out slow, building up the uncertainty of our main characters to go away to war, especially when they have so much going for them back at home. John Savage’s character Steven just got married, and the guys have a big community of friends that really feels like a big community of friends. I found myself completely immersed. They really don’t make movies like this anymore. Watching the guys hunting one last time before our three heroes have to go to Vietnam is just heartbreakingly good. Look at the scene where De Niro runs down the street toward the pier, tearing his clothes off in one final, defiant act, one final act of free will before the military takes him. You really get a feel for what it’s going to be like for them to leave this all behind.

The scenes in Vietnam are pretty harsh and bare-bones. It is cinematic in that hard-hitting ‘70s style, but it never feels cheapened or melodramatic. De Niro and his friends are holed up in a cage like pigs, and when they’re done playing Russian Roulette, they’re thrown out into the water. One thing I really like about this is how quickly and subtly the tone changes – after they kill the Vietcong and escape into the nearest city’s war veteran hospital, everything seems to have shades of grey. As De Niro wanders the streets, and as Walken goes to visit a prostitute, everything feels so aimless, in such a dismal way…nothing will be the same again for these men, you can tell.

Surprisingly, it is the previously cool and collected Walken, the character I least suspected, that cracks the hardest. He starts going to an underground Russian Roulette betting pool and starts obsessively playing, putting his life on the line again and again. De Niro returns to the US an even quieter and more withdrawn man than he was before, more serious and grown up. In a bittersweet victory, he finally gets the girl he wanted, played by Meryl Streep, who in the beginning of the movie promised to marry Walken when he came back. But he never came back, and so she gets with De Niro instead. Both men wanted her fiercely, and one of them finally got her. Sometimes, though, she still cries for Walken…

Again, I am just in awe of the mature, deep-rooted character drama going on here. It never shoves itself in your face and never feels hamfisted or Hollywoodesque. It’s just fantastic. Watch the scenes after De Niro gets back into town. I really enjoy the scenes where he gets greeted by the townsfolk at the supermarket, or at the bar. And the one where they all go bowling is great. But things take a darker turn once we see the remains of Savage’s marriage, and how he did actually come back home after all…albeit not all in one piece.

Yes, the hunting is a focal point in this film…they take their guns and go out into the mountains to shoot deer. It’s a form of bonding, and it was what tied them all together. It just isn’t the same after De Niro comes back without Walken and Savage, though. He goes hunting with the guys back home, but it feels…different, somehow, and less happy, like a hollow shell. All that is left for him to do is to go back to Vietnam in search of Walken, where he finds him at last on the losing end of his treasured new game.

The Deer Hunter is a very vital and important film. It’s about how people deal with war, and at that, it excels in many great ways. It’s about friendship, and about how it changes over time. Christopher Walken’s character is probably the most fascinating of all, as the way he keeps on playing Russian Roulette even of his own will is crushing. He’s been pushed over the edge, and this is the only way he can cope – perhaps he hears the clicking of a hollow gun every night, wondering when it will stop. I don’t know. This film is great, with wonderful acting, powerful direction and a metric ton of majestic sorrow to boot.