Recently I’ve had the immense pleasure of experiencing a movie all over again. Sometimes you watch a movie and you’re not fully capable of grasping its essence, so you move on, you categorize it, you label it or worse yet, you rate it on a scale from 1 to 5 or from 1 to 10 and that’s it, you’re done. Case closed. This is what almost happened to me after the first viewing of Michael Cimino’s best picture winner of 1978, The Deer Hunter. This was a movie, which after my first time watching it I categorized under ”Good but not that great – Far too long – Overrated – Uneventful.” Well, here I am writing this down on my computer: seeing The Deer Hunter‘s beautiful restoration in 4K on the big screen at Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute might just be the single most impactful cinematic experience I’ve had so far, in all these years of movie watching. What the big screen helped me to see was the richness of the detail, the resounding echo of certain themes presented across all three acts and the emotional kick certain scenes hold, an aspect that is hard to notice once your point of view is limited to the box-like dimensions of most home screens. What The Deer Hunter shows is that when you are allowed to fully exploit the power of cinema across all sections (sound, visuals, storytelling, music, acting) you can indeed paint a canvas not only of a time and place, but of a general mindset as well, the mindset of a tribe, a village, a city and even a nation across a large fraction of time.
Numerous reviews and discussions have been written and raised regarding the best picture winner that sparked a lot of controversy with its brutal scenes displaying the use of Russian roulette in the Vietnam War for the first time since the war had ended a few years prior to the making of this movie. What I want to dedicate this post to is the development of character arc in this three-hour epic, something very few films nowadays are able to achieve due to numerous reasons, but above all 1) bad writing 2) constant constraints on the studio’s part. Because in order to do something similar to what The Deer Hunter does so brilliantly, you need good writing and artistic freedom; you need to be able to push through rules and regulations and exploit the cinematic form to its fullest potential to be able to tell a story that is fleshed out, emotional and important.
First of all, a lot has been said about The Deer Hunter and a lot of times it has been labeled as a war movie. But it’s not. The Deer Hunter, similarly to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), another personal favorite of mine, is a film about men in war, about what happens when you place human beings (NOT KILLING MACHINES) in a war-torn environment. In order to do this, The Deer Hunter uses the three-act approach that has been used for centuries in novels, short stories and plays. The three-act structure in The Deer Hunter is as follows: The Wedding – Vietnam – The Return. This allows the film to present key characters in their own world, then shake this very same world to its core, and place the characters back into it to see what this change brought to their lives, what their next step is, what their reality has turned into. The opening wedding chapter, although disliked by many due to its length (over 55 minutes!), is the key component to this three-hour puzzle. Through it not only do we realize that most of the story will take place in rural America, where steel mining is the only career path a man can take, but that this story will concern a particular community of people, namely Russian Orthodox immigrants, a community where characters are familiar with each other, where friends are like brothers and where marriage is for life. In this community people are born, live and die together, and the relationships that are made are made because there is no escaping this harsh difficult reality; in order to survive you need your neighbor, your local pastor and your local gym teacher. Our protagonists are tied to this small world for the rest of their lives as this is the only world they know, and the only world where they truly feel like they belong. The wedding sequence, aside from the wedding itself, concerns the departure of the three friends (Michael, Nick and Stevie) to Vietnam, and how the entire community experiences this proud moment together. The possibility of death is never mentioned by the members of this community. The only instance where we are faced with the alienated reality of Vietnam and a foreshadowing of what is about to come is when the three friends encounter a veteran who just returned from service and happened to stumble into the first bar on the street. When Michael (Robert De Niro) asks the veteran; ”Well, what’s it like over there?” the only response he gets from the veteran is ”Fuck it.” ”Fuck it” without a doubt is the phrase that encapsulates the fate of the three friends and more importantly, their experience of having to point of a loaded gun to their heads for the simple amusement of their captors.
After having established the friendships, love interests and their aspirations in the wedding chapter, The Deer Hunter places its characters straight into hell. There is no rise and fall scenario in this film. There is simply the introduction of a traumatic event and its aftermath. The prelude to this chapter, however, takes place high in the mountains, where the group of friends go on a deer hunting escapade. In this brief sequence, De Niro’s character, the most experienced hunter, takes pleasure in squeezing the trigger and firing the deadly weapon. The act of shooting still holds a sacred meaning to him; to shoot a deer not only does it mean you’re a good shot – it also means you’re a man, capable of respecting the beauty of the animal before you with what he describes as ”One shot. That’s it,” and continues, ”A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.” Killing a deer is an act that must be swift, clean and professional. Yet the death that Michael and his friends will experience from up close in Vietnam is anything but all these things; it’s dirty, pointless, lacking honor or respect. It’s what it is. Fuck it.
Here is the most surprising aspect of The Deer Hunter – the actual war is shown for the briefest of moments (actual gunfire and combat take up only 15-20 minutes of runtime) as the film is completely aware of what the focus of the story should be on – the emotional state of the characters, not their physical actions. The return is in a sense the lowest of points for each character involved – it is the culmination of trauma, the clash with the old, familiar world and the inability to shake this trauma off and embrace the old, familiar world again. Christopher Walken’s character of Nick is the one protagonist whose trauma is so strong he does not dare look back – soon enough the only reality he can embrace is the reality where his life is worth a few hundred grand, depending on whether he gets lucky enough and the chamber in the gun turns out to be empty. As in most PTSD cases, Nick is simply unfit to live a normal life. There is no balance in Russian roulette, there’s only two extremes – either you live another day, or you blow your brains out and someone makes a lot of money on your death – this is the only line Nick is able to walk. Meanwhile, De Niro’s Michael, the toughest of the bunch, is, on the other hand, the only character fit enough to be able to face his old world. Unfortunately, this world, as loud and colorful as it was during the wedding celebration, upon Michael’s return has turned silent. The friends are there, Linda (Meryl Streep) is also there, just as emotionally broken as Michael, the city and the steel mill are there, and yet it’s quiet. It is a world that has lost connection with Michael, whose traumatic encounter with the war has set him apart from the rest of the society he once was a proud member of. Michael, a young man who once enjoyed himself working hard in the mill, drinking at the bar with friends and fellow workers, dancing with girls at local ceremonies and hunting deer like a professional, is now unable to squeeze the trigger decisively – with the deer staring right at him, the action of killing this majestic animal has lost all sense; it’s barbaric, it’s empty and meaningless. Thus, The Deer Hunter becomes a three-act film about being hopeful and proud, and having this hope and pride violently taken away, and being left on your own, with an alien world as your home.