Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Deer Hunter

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.

The Deer Hunter is more than three hours long. It takes more than one hour to get to the Vietnam sequence, and the sequence involving Russian Roulette at the prisoner-of-war camp is around 15 minutes in length from start to finish. And yet, it's without a doubt the most memorable and intense sequence of the film. It's brutal, random, painful, and horrifying. I can't recall any other movie where the sound of a revolver clicking empty elicited such a reaction from me. Sure, the character survives that round, but he's playing against his friends and the game must continue until one is dead. Cimino uses a lot of discomforting closeups of the men, hot gun barrels pressed against their temples. It builds tension, it's so tightly shot and edited, and it becomes harder and harder to watch until it explodes.

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.

More than anything else, The Deer Hunter is a sprawling movie. We spend so much time with these characters, before and after the Vietnam sequence, they do come to feel like old friends, and the narrative is constructed in a way that suggests a mirror image of events that illustrates the shattering effect of the war on them. The movie opens with a wedding and ends with a funeral; there are two hunting trip, one in which a deer is killed and another where it is spared; and encounters with friends who did not serve. The cinematography is used to great effect to suggest a wide scope: the hunting trips through the mountains paint a very wide, epic canvas that suggest something grand and poetic is taking place while other scenes, such as when Michael and Steven come across a fleeing crowd of refugees and South Vietnamese soldiers jam packed on a jungle road, illustrate the massive, far-reaching power of the war.

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.

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