The Good: Good character study, Good acting
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Excruciating plot, Pacing issues, Fractured storytelling.
The Basics: The Deer Hunter is a war story that takes a long time to get to the war, then explores nothing but misery after that.
It is surprise to very few people who follow my reviews for me to write that I have been watching a lot of movies lately. When one takes time and concentrates their time and focus on movies, it honestly takes quite a bit for one to get excited about seeing new ones. For me, that has been somewhat pronounced as I have been watching movies that are supposedly great and which I have either heard great things about, looked at with loathing or have been surprised by. I knew absolutely nothing about The Deer Hunter until the moment it arrived at my local library for me to pick up on DVD. And, truth be told, when I looked over the DVD box, for the first time in a long time, I was actually excited about the movie inside.
Unfortunately, what I soon discovered was a movie that was too real to be enjoyable as entertainment. Long sections of the movie are filled with partying scenes and the chaotic scenes of pointless revelry reinforce what most people suspect; that it is far more enjoyable to be at a party with friends than it is to watch a bunch of people one does not know partying. Similarly, The Deer Hunter includes several scenes of warfare and torture which are in no way entertaining or even engaging. Instead, there are long stretches of the movie that are just painful to watch and it prevents the movie from being anything other than a long, unsettling cinematic experience that leaves the viewer raw and miserable.
After getting off work at the steel mill, a group of men prepare for a weekend adventure. Steven is getting married to Angela and his buddies have been planning a hunting trip before they go off to the Army and Vietnam. With Steven married, Michael, Nick and Steven are celebrated for serving their country and they enjoy a lavish wedding party. The next day, Mike, Nick, Stan, Axel and John go off on a hunting trip. When Stan asks Mike to use his spare boots, Mike uses the opportunity to draw a line for his friend and it is only when Nick forces the issue that Stan gets to use them. The hunting trip is remarkably short, with Mike felling a deer with a single shot.
Rather abruptly, then, the film transports the viewer to Vietnam where Mike and his airborne friends Steven and Nick are reunited moments before being captured by the enemy. Tortured by being kept in water and then forced to play Russian Roulette, Mike tries to keep Stevie sane as the prisoners are killed. Working with Nick, Mike formulates a plan to kill the guards and escape. The plan works and it puts Nick, Mike and Steve on a harrowing journey through the rivers and jungles of Vietnam in hopes of finding rescue.
The Deer Hunter takes a long time to get going. In the first half hour, the men leave work, they hang out at a bar singing together and playing pool and the wedding begins. While this takes time to introduce characters, setting up elements like Linda being abused by her father, the movie feels slow. The Deer Hunter does what it is doing without any real sense of subtlety or grace. As a result, the initial characterization section of the film feels like the viewer is being given the initial characterizations of the four main characters. Obvious and intimate scenes are broken up with giant crowd scenes and bits like one of the guys carrying off a screaming bridesmaid. This does little for the overall film, but create a very masculine mood. The wedding party, for example, is a scene that takes over fifteen minutes, but it does nothing to establish or change the character dynamics. Instead, the relationships between the characters remain static and it is only when a Green Barrett soldier comes in and refuses to interact with Mike that the expectations that the men have are even remotely challenged.
The Deer Hunter is choppy in the way it is presented, with large tracts of time missing and a lack of a sense of cohesion to parts of the movie as a result. At the midpoint of the movie, it is unclear what the film is other than heavy. And while the movies of Terry Gilliam are often described as horrific and difficult to watch, none of them were so consistently unsettling as The Deer Hunter (with the possible exception of Tideland). As Nick succumbs to shellshock after being tortured, the scenes are gutwrenchingly difficult to watch and in fact, the only reason it seems one would want to persist in it (other than my determined desire to see all of the movies that won Best Picture) is because they have no imagination for human suffering or depravity. The Deer Hunter is populated by people suffering in ways that most us may easily imagine and most of us will not want to see.
War is ugly, we get that. Not all of us need to see it to conceptualize it. Sadly, The Deer Hunter shows it in all its gory and worse than that, it illustrates how the violence and horror do not end at the end of the war. So, as far as a film goes, much of The Deer Hunter is gross. The character study of Michael only truly becomes interesting as the movie reaches the two hour mark. It is at that point that Mike, returned from the war, actually has to grapple with the effects of all that he witnessed in Vietnam and his character before that.
Michael is played by Robert De Niro and it is amazing how different he can appear with just a goatee. But more than that, Michael is one of De Niro's more intriguing cinematic characters as he embodies a natural leader who has an intensity and a rigidity that makes his survival instinct seem entirely realistic. De Niro is actually able to carry scenes where all he does is stare intensely and The Deer Hunter works when it does because De Niro has the gravitas to present a character who is solid and deeply wounded. De Niro is all that saves The Deer Hunter from succumbing to being an entirely miserable film. And in the few moments when Michael opens up to Linda, he has a charisma that makes him seem like a likable guy as opposed to just an efficient soldier and leader.
As well, De Niro is supported on screen by Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken. Walken plays Nick and he helps escalate the mood of the most horrific moments of The Deer Hunter. Walken plays terrified with his eyes bugging out and looking helpless and when he does, the effect is extraordinary. Walken plays the emotions needed to sell his character's broken nature and make him seem realistic. Streep plays Linda and her character's journey is much more subtle and one with a lot less resolution. She plays Linda as abused and the mirroring of Linda's abuse and Nick's shellshock is one of the smarter aspects of the film.
On DVD, The Deer Hunter is presented with minimal bonus features, a theatrical trailer and production notes, as well as a filmography for the principle cast and crewmembers. Those who enjoy this movie will find there are few advantages to the DVD over seeing it unedited on television.
As for me, I am able to recognize the technical aspects that went into constructing The Deer Hunter which make it technically worthwhile. But while I can acknowledge the artistry, it does not make it a great film or one I would ever want to see again. Those who enjoy delving into cinematic explorations of human suffering with no real catharsis might see it different, but for me, there's enough suffering in real life for me to want to spend my free time watching it in the movies, much less wanting to see it again and again.
[As winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project by clicking here!]
For other films featuring Meryl Streep, please check out my reviews of:
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Out Of Africa
Kramer Vs. Kramer
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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