Yes, yes, The Deer Hunter! And just what, pray tell, marked the end of this bygone era of inventive filmmaking backed by huge studio budgets and the full faith and trust of producers audiences and critics? Many things led to that demise, but a large part of that fall started right here with this same film... The Deer Hunter! Sure, co-creator/ director Michael Cimino went to war with distributor Universal Pictures over the final
But go to his head it did and he went into his next film Heaven's Gate with a head the size of an Appalachian ridge and more demands than the Texas Electric Grid during the peak of summer. The budget swelling of The Deer Hunter paled in comparison to Heaven's Gate's extravagances and the final product pulled in less than eight percent of its total cost at the box office (actually sinking its studio in the process).
That story is Hollywood Legend and there are plenty of things that can be, and have been, said about Cimino and his tall tales and ego on this film, too! However, let's not forget that one important piece of the puzzle... Michael Cimino was proven right on The Deer Hunter and its critical and financial successes are far from mere flukes. This iconoclastic Vietnam War film deserved all of its five Oscars and nine total Oscar Nominations (not to mention a slew of other nods and trophies). The film is excellent!
This is, in part, because The Deer Hunter is not easily pigeonholed into any one category. While its contemporaries like Coming Home, The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans and even Apocalypse Now itself are specifically Vietnam War flicks (admittedly good to excellent, all), The Deer Hunter breaks far beyond those boundaries and concentrates on an expansive drama in multiple chapters with the Vietnam War casting a shadow over them all, but taking the stage in only one.
In fact, in the first act The Deer Hunter might as well be called "The Beer Hunter" as we explore the lives of a group of buddies and their families in a small steel-working town. It's a town they're working hard-as-steel to paint red before their eminent deployment oversees. Let me tell you, folks, in this quiet mountain town the Rolling Rock flows like the Monongahela River as the gang throws down for their buddy's wedding and one last hunting trip for some Big Bucks.
Who we talkin' 'bout?
The beauty of this first act is how unlike the rest of the film it really seems. There is fear and tension here, but Act One works as an excellent setup for these characters and a fantastic exposition for the notable acting talents that make this film what it is. Innocence and simpler life permeates this part in direct contrast to the horrors and fish-out-of-water alienation that come later. In many ways this is the key unit is the key to the entire film with foreshadowing and exposition submerged in a very natural and seemingly slice-of-life opening.
It's hardly a spoiler to tell you that we soon move forward in time to Michael, Steven and Nick fighting in Vietnam... and the shift forward in time is jarring to say the very least. Here the film shifts greatly to a much darker place and the ripple-effects begin. Cimino focuses greatly on the horrors of the war and the psychological impacts that such horrors carry with them. This is not only seen through the eyes of those who got the worst of it, but also those who survived apparently unscathed and even those at home who didn't experience these things directly, but suffer in their own lonely ways.
Much has been made of, and spoken of, the scenes involving Russian Roulette. In truth, these are some of the more memorable scenes, not because of their mere shock value, but because of the excellent acting and directing that permeates every second of it. This isn't merely a game of suspense, but a truly gripping experience made all the more terrifying because the characters, by now, feel so very real and well-developed. In truth, The Deer Hunter's beginnings can be traced to the Roulette sequence(s). Writers Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker's original spec script (entitled "The Man Who Came to Play") may bare little resemblance to this sprawling 182 minute film, but when combined with Michael Cimino's story ideas (tall tales and exaggerations, though they may be) and the finishing touches of Silent Running scribe Deric Washburn (who wrote the final screenplay) the result is an amazing and deep Oscar Nominated script that goes far beyond cruel gun games and far beyond mere Vietnam War scenes.
In truth, Cimino may also have gone far beyond the screenplay in his directing and he's been criticized for a lot of the goings on in front of and behind the camera (though, again, nothing compared to Heaven's Gate). However, equally true is that The Deer Hunter is a triumph, largely for all that it is, all that Cimino made it and all that it never becomes. Although there are war scenes, these are a means to tell the story, as opposed to so many exploitative flicks whose stories exist only to prop up the scenes of war. Every scene and, thus, the film on the whole is character-driven and alternates between fascinating and mesmerizing, even when it delves into the harshest territories that make this most assuredly not a film for everyone.
Yes, this can be a deeply disturbing and shocking film that pulls no punches in showing its bleakness and dark depths. Those who would dismiss this film (or revise their criticisms in light of Cimino's later works) are seeing only the darkness, not the depth that goes with it. Metaphor and symbolism are so subtle and never heavy-handed that many may miss their presence and those weaned on the pat-Hollywood ending are missing the drama of this Drama.
Still, this isn't an absolutely perfect film. There are geographic anomalies, historical inaccuracies and a fair amount of confusing moments, both in the timeline of the story and in the unexplored, but hinted at elements that feel both obscure and obtuse at times. Truth to tell, there are also a few slow parts, even for those who are all-in for the drama and paced storytelling. Then again, some complaints based on comparisons to other films simply don't hold up. Sure it's not the following year's Apocalypse Now, but then again the two films, though set around the same time and made around the same time, tell very different kinds of stories from very different points of view and there's more than enough room for both of them and more.
Also, yes, The Deer Hunter does have scenes of actual Deer Hunting, too, although this is no more the actual core of the story than the different hunt in Vietnam is. The core is found in the characterization of this group of linked yet fractured people and their changing realities. This is what makes The Deer Hunter an excellent film, worth Four and one half Stars out of Five! The title might suggest one of those hunting videos or some strange semi-sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, the first chapter may feel like a domestic drinking drama, the War scenes may blow away some of the best works of their kind and the striking story may shift through each sequence and on through the fantastic epilogue, but The Deer Hunter is somehow much more than the sum of its parts and well worth the time to watch... or re-watch. Now, if you'll excuse me... I've got some BEER to hunt. See you in the Next Reel!
All-Star Casts and Perfectionist Directors
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They often soon regret having done so, but HEY... it's a Roulette Shoot, man!
You never KNOW what you're going to get!!!