Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Deer Hunter (1978) has one of the all-time great jump cuts in the history of cinema. After more than an hour of watching a group of Pennsylvania steel mill workers go from the blast furnace to a wedding to a hunting trip, the film unexpectedly drops us into the middle a hellish Vietnam battlefield. No warning, no buildup, no scenes of the men going to basic training or arriving in Vietnam. One minute they're in a bar, the next they're in the jungle. The camaraderie we've been a part of gives way to a frightening combat zone, explosions, men on fire, women and children blown to pieces, and pigs running through filth.
Why? Why this sudden leap from Pennsylvania to Vietnam in a way that leaves the audience, for lack of a better word, sucker punched? Because, no matter what these men do; no matter what promises they make to each other about how they won't leave each other behind; no matter how patriotic, brave, or tough they think they are, there is nothing that can prepare for the horrors of war they face, and those experiences will leave them shattered physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Directed by Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter follows three friends - Michael (Robert De Niro), Nicky (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) - on their last day of work at the steel mill before they're deployed Vietnam. Steven is also getting married the same day, and there's a big, Orthodox celebration involving more friends who won't be going off to serve as well as Linda (Meryl Streep), Nicky's girlfriend but whom Michael has a thing for. Michael and Nicky go on a hunting trip the next day with more friends. In Vietnam, the men are captured and forced to play Russian roulette, and though they eventually escape, none of them are the same.
Away from Vietnam, the movie shows us life in a small steel town. The movie was filmed in real locations (including parts of Cleveland), and it never once feels inauthentic. These people are shown to be honest, hardworking, patriotic people who work with their hands, get dirty, and enjoy a good drink at the bar where everyone knows each other. After Vietnam, the town feels different. Michael, who we follow most of the time, feels alienated and out of place once he returns alone. When he sees a party waiting for him at his house, he tells the cab driver to go to a motel. Everyone seems just a little quieter, a little less joyful, uncertain of how to behave.
The Deer Hunter is a very visceral movie. Watching it, you almost feel like you've lived through it and touched everything the characters have, whether the fires of the blast furnace, the cool still of the mountain forest, the rat-infested pit of the prisoner camp, and the chaotic underworld of Saigon as it's about to fall to Communist rule. The atmosphere is palpable.
Truth be told, I probably won't be watching The Deer Hunter again any time soon. The three-hour running time probably could have been pared down because some scenes go on too long, blunting their effectiveness, but also, it's a challenging movie to watch. It's so intense and so emotionally shattering that after watching it, I felt drained. It's a powerful movie, but it's not easy to watch.