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The Deer Hunter (1978)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Apsergren, Shirley Stoler, Rutanya Alda, Pierre Segui
  • Director: Michael Cimino
  • Screenplay: Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker, Deric Washburn
  • Length: 182 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R

A trio of young men head off to the war in Vietnam and return changed men in Michael Cimino’s Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter.

Opening with the meandering wedding of Steven (John Savage) and Angela (Rutanya Alda), the film eventually transitions to the Vietnam conflict. Just before that, the film’s six pseudo-central characters go on a pre-war hunting trip. Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro) is the leader of the group. He’s the most experienced marksman and, if the other five weren’t his friends, most of them wouldn’t even be invited. Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) is Michael’s best friend and engaged to Michael’s wished  paramour Linda (Meryl Streep).

Alongside Steven, who is going to war with Nick and Michael, the group includes Stanley (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspergren), none of whom enlisted and will remain behind. Although they have little to do with the story itself, these three men will be the much needed support upon Michael’s return home.

While in Vietnam, the three men are separated into different units but come together on the site of a vicious village raid by the Viet Cong which unceremoniously slaughters their own people, giving the audience its first insight into the brutality that is about to be inflicted upon them.

From there, Michael, Nick and Steven are captured and held prisoner in rat-infested waters beneath a ramshackle house on the water. There, they are forced to play Russian Roulette while their captors bet on which man will suffer the bullet. The events test their mettle and show us what kind of man each person is. All three are scared but Michael keeps his head and works out a plan to get Steven out of the death box in which he’s been placed for having missed himself with the bullet, while freeing them of their captivity at the same time.

From there, the film follows the three as they are rescued and taken to Saigon where Nick disappears, Michael is discharged from the military and Steven is laid up in the hospital. Upon Michael’s return home, he slowly uncovers the truth about Nick’s disappearance and Steven’s ultimate fate.

Cimino paints a very vivid picture of war. In its theme of war as the ultimate catalyst, The Deer Hunter succeeds dramatically. Its biggest problem is pacing. From the outset, the film wanders listlessly through many scenes, including the overlong wedding (showing in intricate details the Russian Orthodox marriage ceremony) and ensuing reception. In addition, the inclusion of so many unnecessary characters, including the underused and unresolved storyline of Linda, makes for a somewhat broad, but still engaging feature.

The film earned Walken a deserved Oscar for his performance, but he isn’t the lone standout of the film. De Niro delivers a thoroughly involving character that helps make the film feel less stagy. De Niro was deserving his Academy Award nomination, but the film’s other acting nod is a bit of a head-scratcher. Streep offers nothing revelatory, nothing emotionally impactful and ultimately leaves little impression in the viewer’s mind at the film’s conclusion. The film is about De Niro, Walken and Savage’s characters. Savage was far more deserving of recognition than Streep, but a star-packed Supporting Actor field prevented his inclusion.

The Deer Hunter is an admirable film. Its pacing flaws being the most disconcerting, anyone interested in a film so vividly exploring the atrocities of warfare will find a great deal to be appreciated herein. The film never flinches and that’s a good thing.