I was at my local library last week, and I decided to check out the new DVD section that my library had just added. I browsed through a bunch of bad comedy titles of the 80s and some new stuff I had seen too recently that I didn't feel like watching again. Then a little red box caught my eye. It was The Deer Hunter On that box, it had in big letters:

5 ACADEMY AWARDS
INCLUDING
BEST PICTURE

Naturally I was intrigued because it was such a big winner, yet I had never heard of it. I checked it out with my library card and went home. Yesterday, I decided to watch it. It started off, and the first thing I noticed was the quality. I thought to myself, "This film is amazingly dark and blurry for a DVD." I looked at the DVD box again. I read the back. Printed in tiny letters were:

1978 EMI FILMS, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Then my reaction became the opposite: "Hey, this is an amazingly CLEAR picture considering it was made back then." Anyway, that didn't matter much. If a movie was good, then it was good...so I kept watching.

The movie starts off in a steel mill. I had no idea what the movie was about at all. The box didn't give much information, so when I saw a guy standing so close to the firepit, I thought it was going to be some murder/mystery movie. Anyhow, I was wrong because it then cut to the workers getting off their shifts and going home. It focused on five of the workers: Nick (Christopher Walken), Mike (Robert DeNiro), Steven (John Savage), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren). They were apparently planning some sort of hunting trip, and then going to a local bar to have a good time. Since I watched this at home on my pathetic little TV and not a at a theatre, something must have gotten lost because I couldn't understand much of what was being said. Actually, the majority of what I heard was a lot of mumbling, and an occasional "fuck", "shit", and "asshole" randomly and casually inserted into the dialogue. After a while though, I got used to it...and I realized that this is how those people probably would talk in real life anyway.

Then the story advanced a bit, and the scene became a wedding. It was held in a beautiful church and things got a little bit more interesting. I straightened up. However, my enthusiasm did not last. The film got stuck in an endless dance scene, and I was there waiting for SOMETHING to happen. I thought to myself, "This film won five Academy Awards? It doesn't seem to be moving in any direction." I kept watching though, while reassuring myself that the director (Michael Cimino) must have known it was boring and was intentionally doing it to set some kind of event up. The dance scene kept on going and going. I went up to fix myself a snack. I made an extravagant sandwich. When I came back, they were still dancing.

It got to the point where I wanted to turn off the DVD player and go do something else, but then the scene changed. The men were loading up the car with shotguns and getting ready for the hunt. That put me back in my seat. "Now we'll see why this movie is called The Deer Hunter," I thought to myself. They had a short dialogue where Mike spills his philosophy about hunting.

"A deer has to be taken with one shot,"

he says to his Russian American friend, Nick. Nick laughs and talks about his own preference...

"I like the trees."

On the road, they pull typical "guy" pranks, and then they get down to hunting. Mike sees a deer, and shoots it. He takes it out with one shot. At the end of the day, the group celebrates and drinks.

Cut to Vietnam. Bombing Run. A Viet Cong finds a group of villagers hiding in a small hatch and drops a grenade down. Mike, now a soldier, becomes enraged, and incinerates the Viet Cong with a flamethrower. Mike, Nick, and Steve get captured and put into cages. The scene that comes next is one of the most horrific and suspensful scenes ever in motion picture history. Behold Russian Roulette, a game so terrible it's scary just watching it. I suggest that you find out what "Russian Roulette" is from the film, rather than read my description of it (or click to the hard link I provided). It's better if you don't know what is going, so that you will be more shocked when you find out. So skip the next section if you plan on watching the movie any time soon

Russian Roulette Basics
Six Chambers in a Revolver, One bullet. Spin the gun, and shoot yourself. If you live, give the gun to your friend and let him do the same. If you die, you lose.

The rest of the movie revolves around the tragedy of War and the effects on the lives of all the characters. This isn't a spoiler w/u, so to give away any more is criminal. All I can say is that I enjoyed the movie. While it is often slow, it provokes some deep thought for the serious moviegoer and is, in my opinion, rental worthy. Hopefully, this write up has sufficiently whetted your appetite and encouraged you to go watch it, if you haven't already.

Note: This movie was ranked 79th in the 100 Greatest American Films list released by the American Film Institute.

I could be boring and preface my writeup with the line that made me fall in love with this film, in a nice blockquote: "This is this! This is not something else! This is this!" But I see that line everywhere now, which makes me not want to use it. The more a line like that is used, the more it begins to mean something to people, and meaning something exactly the opposite of what that line means - if you know what I mean - and the opposite of what the film is (not) about. This is this - it doesn't mean something else, it isn't a story about something else. It's just this.

The Deer Hunter is a movie that deliberately messes with your idea of how a movie should work. It's a "Vietnam war movie" that doesn't show more than a few seconds of actual battle. In fact, it's a war movie in which most of the screen time is focused on the characters at home in their little mining town. As Paranda points out, it takes ages to get going, and in fact it was only on the second viewing that I really appreciated it, because the first time around I was hampered by my ideas of what it was going to be like. I kept waiting for the story to "get going", and it eventually did, but it was only then that I realized that everything that had gone before was not just filler; it was an attempt to show real, ordinary life, and how it gets twisted around by war. When I watched it the second time, the care and attention given to the smallest interactions of each character amazed me. I found out later that the director, Michael Cimino, allowed much of the casual scenes and dialogue between the main actors to be improvised. So, you have pauses, awkwardnesses, people speaking at the same time, people not knowing what to say, non sequiturs, and the general exciting confusion of real human communication. There is no sense whatsoever of people acting; in my opinion they all deserved academy awards for that.

The "story" (remember, in reality there's no story - this is this! This is not something else) revolves around a group of friends in a small Pennsylvania mining town, some of whom are drafted to fight in the Vietnam war. The other writeups have admirably listed the main actors and their characters, and the outlines of the early plot, so I won't go into too much detail. I want to talk about themes.

Chance

A powerful theme running through this film is that of chance. There are constant references to bets and gambling, the blind luck of the draw that selects three of the friends to go to war, the blind luck that decides who lives and who dies. The Russian Roulette scene in the Vietnamese POW camp is one of the most famous and powerful in cinema history, and (I read recently) part of the reason for the intensity and emotion of Christopher Walken's performace in that scene is that Robert De Niro and Michael Cimino hadn't warned him of some of the things that were going to happen: notably, his being slapped repeatedly in the face. Walken's character is so traumatised by his experience that he becomes addicted to playing Russian Roulette for money, and disappears into the Hanoi underworld after a brief stay in a military hospital. De Niro's character is also terribly affected by this, and inflicts a version of the same game on Stan back home when they go hunting again, in order to teach him not to play with guns. Steven, played by John Savage, loses both his legs and suffers a complete mental breakdown, and when Michael returns to find him he is in a mental institution where the residents are all playing bingo. What does it all mean? It doesn't mean anything. This is not something else; this is this. Chance does not represent something else in this movie; it is just there, an inextricable part of ordinary life. There is no reason - no rational, justifiable reason - why I am alive and someone else is dead. It is chance. Full realization of this is something most humans will not allow themselves, and The Deer Hunter shows what can happen when the realization is forced on them by extreme circumstances.

Heroism

There is a clearly heroic character in this movie - Michael, Robert De Niro's character. Before they go to war he seems like a misfit, silent and grumpy, unable to communicate verbally or emotionally, and only truly alive when acting physically. He is an expert deer hunter who takes that pastime very seriously, and the way those scenes are shot, in the beautiful mountain scenery, gives some kind of sense that for Michael the hunt is a spiritual phenomenon. Many hunters have said this kind of thing so I don't feel I'm being overdramatic. After the wedding party - which is also a form of goodbye party for the three friends who have been drafted - Michael is so drunk and overwhelmed with the emotion that he can't express that he throws off his clothes and goes sprinting naked along the street in the freezing night air. The only person who follows him is Nick (Christopher Walken), who also seems to be the only person who understands him.

However, once they are in Vietnam, Michael turns into Superman. He devises an insane plan to get them out of the POW camp; when Steven can't hold on to the helicopter rescuing them, he jumps after him into the river and carries him back through the jungle to friendly territory; even after he gets back home, decorated with more medals than most people ever see, he goes back into Vietnam just before the end of the war to try and find Nick, who never returned. He doesn't do all of this out of some kind of high moral code or testosterone-fuelled macho pride bullshit; in fact, one of the main puzzles of the movie is trying to work out Michael's motivation. Robert De Niro considered this his greatest role, which is something everyone should think about carefully, especially when you realize that this is the guy who starred in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Godfather II, The Mission, Meet The Parents...um, well I'll stop there. The point is, Michael is a complex character - he gets drunk and obnoxious, he can't relate to most people, he's in love with his best friend's fiance, he likes to hunt deer, he has anger problems; he's a very human and imperfect person, not a saint at all, and yet he displays the highest kind of heroism and self-sacrifice, together with an utter modesty and lack of desire even to speak about it afterwards.

Heroism is not just an accident; however, in The Deer Hunter it's not clear exactly where it comes from, and that ambiguity, like the faltering, very human conversations, the scenes that go on longer than they should, and the stories that get left off in the middle without resolution, gave me the feeling that I was not watching a movie in the normal sense. What's the normal sense? The sit-down, eat-popcorn, be-wowed, get-message, forget-details sense. I felt as wrenched and exhausted and alive as if I had been through these events myself; not in the flashy, superficial, so-real-you-think-your-car-just-exploded way. It was more like I felt like I was their friend and that these were my memories. I even felt heroic myself, while still remembering that I am an asshole. That's pretty special.

Story

I've already touched on what is done with story in The Deer Hunter. I saw a user comment on imdb.com which said "Great cast, no story. The story drags this film down, like a weight tied to my leg while I am trying to swim. The story is weird, and confused. The movie has no point." In my opinion, this is a fair comment, but limited. It is true that the story drags in all the wrong moments; goes nowhere, then goes somewhere; never does what's expected; builds to dramatic emotional climaxes and then commits the cardinal sin of allowing the audience to come right back down from that climax into the neurotic fumblings of ordinary life again. It breaks many of the golden rules of cinematic storytelling, but it's obvious to me that this is intentional, and the more I watch the movie the more I appreciate it, because it's always new. A neatly packaged story that obeys all the movie conventions is already a dead thing in your mind by the time the credits roll. There's no need to interact with it because it has anticipated your every move; it treats you like an idiot. It tells you a story because - apparently - you are not able to appreciate real life. And this is wrong, because you are. You're alive, aren't you? Okay then.

This is not something else! This is this. That's as close as Michael can come to expressing what pisses him off about people and what he's understood about life. It doesn't represent anything else. It's not a story. You can't tell what's coming next. Isn't that what life is like? You have no entitlements and no obligations except those which you project for yourself; your life follows no story except that which you place upon it to explain what has happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen. When Nick gets hooked on Russian Roulette, is he trying to throw his life away, or is he trying to take control of his own death? You don't know. I don't know. It's never discussed. No one explains anything. You are just shown some stuff, and it's up to you if you want to call it a story.

There have been so many stories about Vietnam, but The Deer Hunter captures the randomness and chaos of it, and the mess that was left in people's lives afterwards. There's no discussion of the rightness or wrongness of the war, and Michael Cimino, when he was criticized for his depiction of a Vietnamese POW camp, even said that he was not interested in factual accuracy, because the movie was not about the war at all. That is the comment of a man who has his eye on higher things. Because of its betrayal of cinematic conventions and its lack of a coherent storyline, The Deer Hunter almost certainly would not be made today; and if it was made, it probably would not have attracted such a stunning cast. I can imagine Ben Affleck saying "It's a war movie, but there's more time spent on a Polish wedding scene?" or Gwyneth Paltrow saying "What do you mean, improvise?"

I still have some unanswered questions about this movie. When Michael spots Nick by accident in the Russian Roulette parlour in Hanoi the first time, what is Michael doing there in the first place? Why does the movie end on this terribly cheesy note with them all singing God Bless America over their breakfast after Nick's funeral? Why does the vet they meet in the bar at the wedding say nothing but "Fuck it"? I like it that I have these questions, which may never be answered. I like it that this is an imperfect movie, because it's an imperfect world. I like it that the actors hardly seem to be acting; there are no heavy, significant stares off-camera, no attempts to increase the drama of a scene, no attempts to grab a bit more lovin' from the audience. They are all dirty and greasy and they wear frumpy, ordinary clothes and talk awkwardly with each other and have rare moments of real contact; they're just like us. This is real life. This is not something else; this is this. Maybe some people don't like that on their movie screen; I love it.

This is my number one favourite movie of all time. Thank you for listening, and if you haven't already, do think about renting it.

A fucking amazing movie. I don't know what else to say. I just saw it on the big screen at this little artsy movie theater down the street, and it just blew me away. I am still shaking. I think it was so powerful because in the theater, you are totally immersed in the movie (if you have a nice, quiet audience). The people in the movie are >= life sized. It is like you are there.

This is not to downplay the intrinsic power of the film. It would be incredible anywhere, anytime. But I guess my point is that this movie, rather than some techno-wonder over-hyped action extravaganza, really made me appreciate the power of the big screen to amplify you movie experience.

Seeing kessenich's post over there reminded me of something. The film takes place in PA, and as you can imagine from the title, there is quite a bit of deer hunting. Now I come from "back East", and let me tell you, there are no mountains like the ones in the movie in PA. So I stayed in the theater through all of the credits. And sure enough, they thanked Estes National Park or something, which is in freaking Colorado. Now that is cool, and I like the Rockies, but what the hell, the Appalacians are neat in their own way. The more I think about it, the more it grates me that they didn't shoot the hunting scenes in the Appalacians. I have hunted a lot in the Appalacians and it is a much closer feel than that portrayed in the film. Well, whatever. Maybe the director wanted the breath taking vistas of the Rockies or something.

BTW, kessenich, you definitely should check this film out.

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