Monday, March 26, 2012
Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)
A grand Vietnam War nightmare, The Deer Hunter strides fearlessly towards bombastic audaciousness. Michael Cimino fulfils the film's promise to poke the most tender open wound of America's psyche, and The Deer Hunter stands as a landmark cinematic achievement.
In Vietnam, Michael, Nick and Steven witness gruesome action before being captured by a Vietcong unit, with a deranged commander who tortures prisoners by forcing them to participate in Russian roulette as a gambling game. With Steven held in a rat-infested underwater cage, Michael convinces Nick to demand that the Russian roulette gun be loaded with three, rather than one bullet, and after they both fire blank shots to their heads, they use the gun to attack their captors and escape, rescuing Steven.
Cimino does not waste any opportunity to amplify the impact of The Deer Hunter. From the brassy 51 minutes dedicated to the wedding, to the insane intensity of the Russian roulette nightmare, to the incredible prolongation and extension of scenes that would otherwise pass unnoticed (a side-of-the-road piss on the hunting trip becomes an excuse for an endless frat boy joke), Cimino goes intentionally overboard.
Amazingly, he achieves the desired impact. The Deer Hunter is an unforgettable and haunting journey, normal men torn away from the mundane American heartland and thrown into a faraway hell. The relaxed time that Cimino dedicates to tell their story serves to deeply humanize Michael, Nick, Steven and their community, maximizing the impact of the permanent post-war damage that all will suffer.
Christopher Walken won the Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Nick, a man forever intoxicated by the dance with death. Representing the men who either never came back from the war or who suffered such severe mental damage that they wished they hadn't, Walken gives Nick a facade of ruggedness over a personality susceptible to unforeseen emotional sides-wipes. John Savage's openly vulnerable screen persona is perfect for the role of Steven, doomed to agony from the moment Angela fatefully spills those almost unnoticeable drops of red wine on her white wedding dress.
After her brief debut in Julia, The Deer Hunter was Meryl Streep's first meaningful role and she makes an immediate impact as Linda, resourceful on the home front, hopeful for the return of her man, and then adapting to the emotional realities of a new post-war world. Streep was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for a complex performance that mixes playfulness, strength, hope and resignation.
Cazale was already diagnosed with terminal cancer before filming started, and died several months before the film was released. His final performance as Stanley is a perfect summary of his career, a man naturally marginalized and ever so slightly unhinged for reasons that are never quite clear.
The cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond paints Clairton with almost loveable industrial grime, while the Vietnam scenes receive hellish red and yellow hues. The Stanley Myers guitar piece Cavatina, played by John Williams, provides an exceptionally haunting musical backdrop to the unravelling human lives
The Deer Hunter ends with a hopeful rendition of God Bless America, the small community of Michael's friends beginning what will be a long healing process. It's a perfectly bittersweet and poignant ending to an exalted drama.
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