Without much mercy, The Deer Hunter hurls its audience into the middle of madness. Vietnam: not so long ago. A single splice of film earlier, four buddies, returned from a last ritual hunt in the Allegheny hills, were cradling their beer bottles as the blueblasted morning light crept into Welsh’s bar, listening to Welsh play a Chopin nocturne—a leave-taking lullaby for the three who would, that day, embark for Nam. Now, the screen is the scene of bullets and screams that sear the air. Reason is out of season. A Viet Cong opens a bomb shelter packed tight with women and children, lobs a grenade into it. After the muffled explosion, a woman and a baby, as though they had been daubed haphazardly with red paint, emerge. Enraged, one of the hunters, Michael (Robert De Niro), now a Green Beret, turns a flame thrower on the enemy soldier, enveloping him.
Unlike the newsreels watched so horrifically, yet so casually, the Vietnam scenes in The Deer Hunter— among the most gut-wrenching ever filmed—don’t give us time to react. There isn’t time to think or apportion sympathy before being flung into madness again:below, in a bamboo compound embedded in the river, POWs are waiting, looking up to watch Viet Cong above them force soldiers to play duets of Russian roulette.
Among the POWs are the three hunters, waiting. The vigil makes the newly wedded Steven (John Savage) want to vomit, but he can’t; Nick (Christopher Walken—a frail, male Ronee Blakley), his eyes fixed like a crazed saint’s, is coiled into catatonia; only Michael has thin-ice self-control.
The camera holds and holds on an anonymous soldier’s face, the flesh twitching in panicky terror. He raises a gun to his temple and holds it there. And waits. Finally his finger coaxes the trigger back. Will it be a simple, thudding click that sounds like thunder? Or a velvet arc?
Minutes earlier, back at Welsh’s bar, Nick had said to Michael, “One clean shot is what it’s all about.” Because of this intense and immediate compression of time—a power of visual scope and compression only movies have— Nick’s words are still deliriously alive as the two are forced to play Russian roulette. Of course there’s no “one clean shot”; that’s a hunter’s and often a Westerner’s vanity.
Russian roulette informs The Deer Hunter structurally and emotionally, and Peter Zinner’s “invisible” editing gives those scenes their swiftness and sting: imperceptible cuts from face to face, surgical slides from scene to larger scene. Few movies have approached terror with as catgut a precision as this one does. The director, Michael Cimino,
on his second movie, has an incredible, prodigal gift for making movies, knowing that editing is the shape and life behind film. He has given The Deer Hunter a grand, overreaching symphonic design and matched it with the weight of emotion. Deric Washburn’s script is a “classically” proportioned narrative: exposition (Steven’s wedding in Clairton, Pennsylvania, and the ritual hunt), development (Vietnam), and a double denouement (Michael’s return home and then back to Nam to search for Nick, junked up and trigger-happy). It’s almost too classical, except that the movie’s genius lies in its assumption that the characters are worth caring for immediately because they’re human. Whereas most dramatic art slaves to show why we should care about characters, Cimino, like Coppola in the two Godfathers, assumes that we must.
Part of The Deer Hunter's prowess— its magnificence—is its tacit belief that while intelligence and sensitivity may be the great dividers, the capacity for sorrow, which this movie shows as being limitless, is the great equalizer. Michael, Nick, Steven, their buddies back home (John Cazale, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren) and Linda (Meryl Streep), the girl who waits, are a bunch of anybodies, and their grief is anyone’s.
Could anyone other than Coppola, Bertolucci (1900), Cimino or possibly Scorsese—all of Italian extraction—en-
The deer hunters: buddy-buddy banter at its most Byzantine
gineer an epic with this kind of sweep and force? Cimino’s assumption about the value of human life accounts for the movie’s sequences of greatness: the high-wire roulette scenes, the Fall of Saigon, Michael’s reunion with the legless Steven in a veteran’s hospital where the new inhabitants are taught therapy through bingo by the old ones, and Michael, home as a hero, in a motel, crouched in a corner and crying. Like the maimed returning on theship in James Jones’s Whistle, the survivors in The Deer Hunter join a very special alienated minority, their perceptions having undergone painful transplants.
Because The Deer Hunter is about the deterioration of feeling in three men, there’s a kind of crippled majesty in the way they keep clinging. After three hours you emerge from the theatre shaken, yet persuaded that every time a man smiles it adds something flawless to the
texture of things.
One of the charges already levelled at the movie is that it doesn’t take a hard line on the Vietnam war, but it
doesn’t have to. Its risk-taking makes it an easy target, providing just about everyone— feminists, gays, heterosexuals, liberals, intellectuals—with reason for rancor. Its flaws are stunningly obvious: the setups for the “big moments,” the clockwork structure, the musty
metaphors and the hour-long opening
wedding sequence that keeps trespassing on tedium. And since it’s the first major movie (oddly enough financed by a British interest, EMI) to have an overtly homoerotic theme, it’s bound to make people uneasy.
The buddy-buddy banter is malebonding at its most baroque and Byzantine: De Niro and Cazale dancing together at the wedding (like the famous Stefania Sandrelli-Dominique Sanda tango from Bertolucci’s The Conformist); the boys wiggling playfully for each other at the pool table and squirting each other with beer fizz; Michael tearing off his clothes and running down the street , Nick chasing him; their final, Wagnerian meeting. The deer hunters aren’t as interested in women as in bringing out the lovable slobs in
each other. Women will probably take offence that Meryl Streep’s goodhearted, anxious Linda is so sacrificial; gays would contend that all the jocularity is closeted, straights that it’s too insinuating. The movie refuses to condone or condemn; it merely displays.
To carp with its flaws is like remarking that the Venus de Milo doesn’t quite measure up because she’s missing her arms. Stunningly obvious reverses into the obviously stunning: the bravura acting scaled to the screen’s size, Vilmos Zsigmond’s immaculate use of the Panavision lens, the superb Dolby sound, and Stanley Myers’ music—a
faraway guitar melody. Alone, they’re not what’s interesting about the movie; masterfully mixed, they leave you with the thought that we don’t get “one clean shot,” yet somehow we should.
The Deer Hunter’s apotheosis arrives at a funeral breakfast in Welsh’s bar. Linda, grieving, as are the rest, starts to sing God Bless America, shakily. The others join, dubiously. Slowly, there’s choral momentum. They raise their beer glasses in a toast to Nick, their arms crooked as though they were giving, or losing, blood. The movie makes you want to raise a glass to Nick, and to those who would raise their glasses to him, in the hope that, however hopeless, there’s something a little closer to one clean shot. Perhaps The Deer Hunter’s true distinction is to make you weep and know why.
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