The Deer Hunter (1978) Directed by Michael Cimino
Michael Cimino is probably the Phil Spector of the movie world. His eccentric behavior is well documented in Stephen Bach's book Final Cut. It is the story of the making of Cimino's follow-up to The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate, which ended up bankrupting film studio United Artists. Cimino is interviewed on the extras of this film and even looks like Spector, he is pure EGO.
The Deer Hunter is such a highly rated film. People make lofty claims on it's behalf. David Thomson, probably the greatest living film critic describes The Deer Hunter as one of the great works of American cinema (the picture also won 5 Oscars). This is a film mired in controversy regarding authorship and actuality. Cimino initially claimed the picture was based on his own life experience. Then it was discovered he had never been to Vietnam (or in the army) and had made the whole thing up. Does this knowledge make any difference in watching this picture?
I think The Deer Hunter is provocative, manipulating, features some of the best acting you're likely to see (hello John Cazale!), and also a little clumsy. It's an incredibly good looking film. Watching The Deer Hunter now feels like watching a parody of The Godfather crossed with Apocalypse Now! You've actually seen all this before and maybe better. This is second hand furniture.
Robert De Niro, amongst the method, at times plays Rambo. Meryl Streep looks too smart to be a working class girl. Christopher Walken is so New York upper class choir boy you can't take it so seriously that he ends up playing Russian Roulette in the back streets of Saigon. John Williams' nylon string theme tune accentuates sentimentality. The effects of the Vietnam war on their small town community descends into patriotic fervor.
But The Deer Hunter is still very watchable and at times amazing. It's not perfect but it possesses a haphazard power. But whisper it, for me, the butchered mess of Heaven's Gate is a more fascinating, interesting picture.
Working class characters and war depictions often come with heart-wrenching emotional content in Hollywood. It is justifiable to portray emotions when there is no intellectual content (assumption on the part of Hollywood?), or when there is extreme experiences taking place, such as war. Why are intellect and emotion separated then?
In the case of The Deer Hunter the respected method actors (from middle class homes) get to 'do' emotion. 'Doing emotion' may well have been one big reason why they wanted to act in the first place.
But somehow the acting and the thinking shines through the characters, especially Robert De Niro's Michael. Here is a famous actor giving us his interpretation of lower class small town male-bonding at home and away. Acting as much as he can.
The people who made this film never went to Vietnam, never worked in a steel factory, and were far removed from any kind of poverty. That's usually the case in movie making; that's why it is acting and fiction too. But The Deer Hunter suffers from a falseness. Maybe it comes from too much effort.
Putting the emotional overdrive aside, this film is about friendship and love between men. It's a depiction of homosocial male culture, which blossoms at war time. And here is where my emotional reaction comes in: for the first hour I felt angry and left out because the gang of young men was having a great time at a bar and then getting ready for a wedding and then they had a blast at the wedding. They appeared reckless and sincere with their risk taking in life. And the women were just props. Even the decision to go to Vietnam was a given and they not only had each others' support, but the whole village was rooting for them. I felt completely cast aside. For the second part of the film I was angry because of the cruel war depiction. I belong to the camp of people who do not have to sit through any more war films to know that war is unnecessary. I know life is cruel, basically.
All the while the women of this society were at home with children or at work in their home village. They were left outside of the fun and recklessness, of hunting trips, bar rounds and outside of war. What was there to relate to? How could these divided and gendered groups unite and influence each other? How could they create loving bonds like the men had done amongst themselves? The relationship that prevailed between genders was sexual, material and duty-bound.
Then there is the beautiful and sensual Meryl Streep as a grocery store girl. The film portrays her as different from other women. Yet, what she collects at the end is an emotionally unbalanced Micheal, who has returned from Vietnam. He has seen her boyfriend (and his best friend) Nick lose his mind and shoot himself in Russian roulette. The only way she connects with him is through sorrow and loss.