Critics have noted that Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) is a story divided into three rather interminably long acts. In its day the film received unanimously glowing reviews and a Best Picture Oscar. But viewed today The Deer Hunter is a somewhat overblown and meandering, brutally self-indulgent and overly melodramatic exercise. Despite some superlative acting and honest reflections on the horror that was America's involvement in Viet Nam, The Deer Hunter registers as a static snapshot – rather than a living testament - to the soldiers and POWs who spilled their blood upon that distant battlefield. Personally, I've never much cared for this film, though I can appreciate some of its elements in it - particular the film’s stellar ensemble cast.
The screenplay by Cimino, Derek Washburn, Louis Garfunkle and Quinn K. Redeker is excruciatingly powerful at times, with painful reminders of the embroiled fiasco that doomed American troops to their perennially haunted and hellish nightmare abroad, with no vindication or even appreciation for their efforts upon returning home. As such, The Deer Hunter's atmosphere is uniformly unsympathetic and oppressive - or, as BBC film critic Mark Kermode once astutely summated, "pitched somewhere between shrieking hysteria and somnambulist somberness"; its sustained darkness of that grim reality equally grating on our hearts as it anesthetizes our collective conscience.
Act One establishes the enduring - and some might suggest, endearing - camaraderie between a group of American steel workers in the roughhewn working class mid-western town of Clairton Pennsylvania. The boys are preparing for two rites of passage simultaneously: a marriage ceremony and their pending military service. Robert DeNiro headlines a stellar cast as Michael Vronsky – a stoic loner whose home fires burn for Linda (Meryl Streep), the girl of his best friend, Nick Chevotarovich (Christopher Walken). Linda comes from an abusive home. And although she remains Nick's gal on the surface, she harbours a secretive passion to belong to Michael instead. This lover’s triangle is fleshed out much later in the film's epilogue. But for now the wedding of a third solider of mis-fortune; Steven (John Savage) to his beloved Angela (Rutanya Alda) is the focus of our story.
As a rule, The Deer Hunter is about a fraternity of men. The women play an almost incidental role at best, particularly Angela, who is already pregnant by another man but genuinely loved by Steven nonetheless. Angela spills a few drops of red wine on her wedding gown during a ceremonial dance, an ominous precursor to the lifelong unhappiness she will have to endure after Steven returns from combat a broken man - both mentally and physically.
Another precursor of the nightmare that is about to unfold in all of their lives comes when Michael and Nick are introduced to a returning U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who refuses to acknowledge their praise of his heroism. Unable to comprehend the horrors this man has seen (and therefore unwilling, or perhaps even unable to discuss without suffering a complete breakdown), Michael and Nick take him at face value and an unflattering confrontation breaks out, narrowly averted by mutual friends, Axel (Chuck Aspegren) and John (George Dzundza). After the wedding, and shortly before the boys decide to go off for one last hunting trip together, Nick ask Linda to marry him. She reluctantly agrees, but later, drunken and confused, Nick has second thoughts. He begs Michael not to leave him in Viet Nam should anything happen to him 'over there' and Michael vows that they will both return home safely.
The film plunges - rather awkwardly - into the thick of a war-torn village attacked by U.S. helicopters for harboring communist sympathizers. Michael witnesses an NVA soldier (Vitoon Winwitoon) assassinate a South Vietnamese woman (Phip Manee) fleeing with her baby and counters with a hailstorm of bullets. Presumably separated for some time since their deployment, Michael, Nick and Steven renew their friendship amidst this torturous carnage. They are captured and thrown into a bamboo cell half submersed in the filthy river, above them a tattered hut that holds even more diabolical amusements for the sadistic guards (Ding Santos, Krieng Chaiyapuk, Ot Palapoo, Choc Chai Mahasoke) who force Nick, Steven and Michael to play a game of Russian roulette one at a time.
On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Steven aims the gun high and grazes his temple with the bullet that ought to have blown his head off. He is punished for defying death by incarceration in the watery pit full of rats that begin to gnaw at his bare legs. Meanwhile, Michael and Nick are forced to play roulette against each other. Michael convinces the guards to let him go solo, using three bullets instead of one, then seizes the moment to kill their captors before rescuing shell shocked Nick and Steven; the three men floating down river on a large tree branch.
By chance an American helicopter spies them in the water and attempt a rescue. Regrettably, only Nick is saved. In his weakened condition Steven falls back into the water, breaking both legs with Michael diving in after him. Carrying Steven to friendly lines, Michael resigns his commission in the army after it is concluded that both Steven's legs will have to be amputated. Meanwhile Nick, who has suffered severe amnesia, aimlessly wanders through Saigon's red light district. He is induced by a champagne intoxicated Frenchman, Julien Grinda (Pierre Segui) to partake in a game of Russian roulette for money. Pointing the gun at the other contestant first and then at himself, Nick insights a riot amongst the betting crowd.
Michael returns home where he maintains a very low profile while struggling with his own feelings. He thinks about Nick and Steven all the time, and eventually decides to visit Angela who has withered with anxiety and exhaustion. She sends Michael to the veteran's hospital where Steven confides that he has been receiving large amounts of cash from Saigon. Michael suspects that Nick is behind these payments. Haunted by his broken promise to Nick (not leaving him behind), Michael attempts to calm himself with another deer hunt. Only this time he is incapable of taking another life - even that of a dumb animal.
Bringing Steven home from the hospital, Michael assesses that he will never be free of his inner demons until he can fulfill his promise to Nick. With great reluctance, Michael returns to Saigon as a civilian before its fall. He tracks down Nick who has made a lot of money playing Russian roulette. But Nick is already lost to him, having succumbed to a total mental obliteration of his former self. Michael invests himself to reach Nick's subconscious and does so moments before Nick picks up the roulette gun and shoots himself in the head. Michael brings Nick's body home. He rekindles his friendship with Linda as their friends sing 'God Bless America' and toast Nick's memory.
The Deer Hunter gratefully benefits from some genuinely fine acting. Even the subordinate players do their part. There is a genuine intimacy among this rather large ensemble that helps pull together what is essentially a very loosely structured narrative with too many holes to sustain the film's 183 minute run time. Director Cimino pulls no punches in his ultra-violent and utterly grim depictions both during and after the war. But his reflections seem, at least in retrospect self-indulgent than purposeful or even focused for that matter. Undoubtedly, the revelry during Steven and Angela’s Ukrainian wedding is meant as counterbalance all of the tragedy that unravels in acts two and three. Yet, the film seems too frequently engrossed in its own mise en scene, getting lost in conflict without resolution or responsibility to ensure that the audience is still along for the ride. Despite its Oscar win, The Deer Hunter is hardly perfect entertainment – or even entertaining for that matter. It weighs heavily on the mind, not as a solemn reminder that war is, indeed, hell, but as a harbinger of meandering narrative threads that seem to go on until both the mind and the bottom have been sufficiently numbed.
Universal's new Blu-ray easily bests its old 2 disc DVD Legacy edition. The 1080p image is robust with bold, rich and detailed color fidelity. Flesh tones are appropriately cooler on the Blu-ray - looking far more natural than on the DVD by direct comparison. Some minor DNR has been applied and at times the image tends to look smoother than perhaps it ought with a minimization of naturally occurring film grain. That said, this is a very clean and beautifully contrasted image that will surely not disappoint. But where I really noticed a difference was in the audio - a robust 5.1 DTS remaster that kicks butt during the bombing sequences.
We get the same old imported audio commentary track from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fischer and a few badly deteriorated deleted snippets excised from the film that are still presented in 480i. What's missing from this presentation is the superb documentary, Vietnam War: Unknown Images that accompanied the Kinowalt Blu-ray release in Europe, as well as a 23min. vintage interview with Cimino. Why Universal did not think it fitting to secure the rights to these two comprehensive extras for their 100th anniversary edition of the film in North America is, quite frankly, beyond me. Then again, Universal has consistently disappointed me in their handling of extra features on previously issued Blu-rays of To Kill A Mockingbird and Out of Africa. I suppose then I ought not to be surprised.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)