October 22, 2010

#53: The Deer Hunter

Michael Cimino's 1978 Vietnam war epic The Deer Hunter centers on a love triangle of loneliness and despair, which of course made for appropriate viewing on what was surely one of the last warm days of the fall. A certain amount of dread hung over everything as I watched, for the second time, this haunting film.

Company: alone. Almost watched it with Kecia one night but that fell through. We may not have had the patience for it, as we ended up giving in to trashy TV and junk food.

Cuisine: a charbroiled vermicelli noodle salad with chicken and steamed potstickers with ginger sauce from a delicious Vietnamese place near me called Jasmine Deli, and a Mountain Dew for stamina

The Deer Hunter opens with classical guitar, which brings an audience member to a such a specific emotional state of mind, doesn't it? It's fitting for the opening setting, a small steel-working town in rural Pennsylvania which we always seem to see at dusk, as though the town never fully awakens. But the steel mill is roaring inside, and when the whistle blows, the men of the town (well, at least the ones we meet) retire to the bar to prepare for two rites of passage: marriage, as Steven (John Savage) prepares for his wedding, and military service, as he and his two buddies, Michael (Oscar nominee Robert DeNiro) and Nick (Oscar winner Christopher Walken), prepare mentally for their trek to Vietnam.

The wedding and the events leading up to it compromise the first of three acts in the film, succinctly divided into pre-, during- and post-war chapters. I love the above shot of the wedding party, framed by the banner above the stage that claims all of its members to be "serving God and country proudly." It's subtle foreshadowing of what's to come.

I remember thinking when I first saw this movie in college that it felt too long. I've always maintained that a story needs to use its time allotted to tell its story, and be no longer. Some three hour films feel justified, but each act of The Deer Hunter feels overlong. The wedding segment suffers from too little action -- the action there is occurs quickly and without much fuss, and the rest seems to follow the wedding dance. I think there's a sense of longing to hold onto the moment, of not wanting to let it slip away before it's so quickly taken away...

... which is so beautifully exhibited in the next morning's rowdy storming of the bar after the fellas hunt them some deer (the line that claims "a deer has to be taken with one shot... I try to tell people that and they don't listen" comes back to haunt and resonate later) and one among them plays a dirge at a piano. It makes everyone stop, and just listen. The audience just listens too, and then with a smash-cut to a Vietnam village being mindlessly pummeled to a pulp, the second act begins.

We follow our boys from home to what seems to be several months into their service in a remote area in Vietnam, where they are luckily reunited right before being taken prisoner by enemy forces and forced to play Russian roulette in a crude riverside prison. Michael wakes up in the beginning of this sequence, as though everything in the seventy minutes prior to it was a dream... and for him, it may as well have been. This act is overly long too, but we forgive it: the whole point of Russian roulette is that it's unbearable to watch and it grows more and more unbearable as time goes on. It's a slow descent into madness for these characters, and while I understand the choice to make the scene god-awful long was meant to bring us into their madness, I still think that the audience gets the full scope of its horror long before the sequence is done, and the boys escape.

Variously they are rescued, but we first follow Michael home from war, where he awaits a warm welcome and hopes to be reunited with Steven, Nick, and most of all Nick's fiance Linda (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, her first of many!), whom he harbors a secret crush on. He spies on her humble home, and the welcome wagon that awaits him, but waits it out until everyone's gone home and then approaches so he can be alone with her.

The truly human element of the story is the Michael-Nick-Linda love triangle, and we owe a lot of that to Streep's otherwise negligible role, a role she was hesitant to take, as it proved to be, in her words, "the girl between two guys." But Streep wrote much of her own dialogue for the character, and brings an ownership to it that the men lack. DeNiro is wonderful here but Streep owns the moment above, in which she first sees and embraces him, chanting "Michael oh Michael oh Michael" as though she'd been waiting for so long to say it, but in an instant she realizes what she's done and who exactly she's embracing and she recoils for just an instant, long enough to step back a moment and study him, quickly apologizing and moving on with the scene. It's brilliant acting on her part. It's fascinating to see such a performer underused the way Streep is here, but no one knew what lied in store for her. This was 1978, babies.

Enough of my Streep gloating (she's not in that many movies on this list, so I have to faun over her while I can!)

In this third act, the one that unites the homefront in Act I with the warfront in Act II, we see the aftermath of what's happened to our boys. Michael is welcomed home enthusiastically, but admits to Linda that he feels "a lot of distance," that he feels "far away." Has a soldier's post-war trauma ever been so succinctly phrased? The man can't move on until he reconnects with Steven, whose loss of limb has put him in a home, and Nick, whom Michael heads back into the mouth of the beast to find and bring home for Linda. Linda feels her own sense of isolation: without Nick, she's an engaged woman recently moved out of her abusive father's home, a small-town girl working in a grocery store who just wants someone to hold her, and someone to hold, at the end of the day. Moral: war isolates us, peace unites us. Ain't that the truth? When you've seen so much death and despair as these guys did, as our guys did, how can you come back and feel love, connection, hope?

Michael's deciding moment to find his friend is quite moving, and when he finds Nick playing roulette in Vietnam, the dichotomy becomes clear: he's lost all hope of human connection, and Linda can't live without it.

The Deer Hunter doesn't leave us with answers about the war, only a deep sense of loss of our country's innocence. Perhaps that's what the final moment is about: everyone gathered around the table, spontaneously singing a round of God Bless America. I don't know that I think it's necessarily contrived, but I could certainly do without it -- wouldn't the film end more powerfully with silence, or is the point that there is hope somewhere? Or perhaps they sing because there's nothing left to do? If the song is used ironically, well ... that I can leave behind. But the meaning isn't clear to me, and I wish it was.

A powerful film regardless of its length, but one I'm willing to leave behind for many years.

Next up: more DeNiro, this time with 100% more Jodie Foster, in Taxi Driver.

1 comment:

  1. I realize this blog is a little over a year old now, so I don't expect a response, but I hope you might read this.
    I admittedly loathe reviews - but this is the best I've ever read on a film that is close to my heart. The way you are about Streep, I am about Walken. I completely agree with your assessment (especially those unnecessarily long sequences)

    Along with Annie Hall this film adds 'strange psycho' to Walken's repertoire and garnered him the Oscar - and I recommend everyone watch it once in their life.

    You analysis is spot on, Thank you once again