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.
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.
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.
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.