One of the most interesting things about this film is that, in a way, it’s really not about war much at all. In fact, the screen time devoted to a wedding – its preparation, its celebration, its aftermath – far outstrips that spent in combat. In fairness, war is the catalyst that drives so much of these characters’ actions, but the daily lives of these people, a close-knit community of Russian immigrant steelworkers in Pennsylvania, is what’s truly important.
I find myself complaining a little less about the length of these movies now that I’m a seasoned Oscar-film-watching veteran. So many of them top out at three hours, and The Deer Hunter is no exception. And yet, I didn’t struggle with the length of this one like I have with so many others. Which is maybe surprising, considering how much of the first hour consists only of following a group of drunk dudes shout-singing at each other. Voyeuristically, the viewer is plunged into the middle of the action without much of a sense of what’s going on, or who’s who, and yet, it gradually becomes clearer what the dynamics are between characters (even if one may still struggle with remembering names and faces…).
So much of the film revolves around this game of Russian roulette, which the guys first encounter in what seems to be a makeshift prison camp somewhere in Vietnam. We don’t get many clues as to what’s happened to bring them to this point. Instead, we focus on how they react under the intense stress of the situation. Steven the newlywed can’t cope; he panics. Robert DeNiro’s Michael takes charge, relying on the cooperation of his old roommate Nick for backup. That’s when something changes for all of the men.
I mostly think of Christopher Walken as a cheesy guy, often mimicked for the sake of a joke. The guy who appears dancing in a Fatboy Slim music video, who shows up in a wide array of films of varying quality. But here he is tearing it up in a serious role that also happened to land him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Although the movie follows the law of Chekhov’s Gun (corollary: if a gun is used in Russian roulette, at some point, the gun will fire and kill a major character), it still manages to surprise in the meandering, unsettled way the soldiers’ lives resume after their service. Michael doesn’t say much of his time in war, and yet he walks the town in his Special Forces uniform, mostly accepting the welcome return he receives from friends who stayed behind. Nothing much seems to have changed for any of them. And yet, not all of their number have come back whole.
War brings out an inner brutality in people that’s kept hidden in peacetime. I’m not sure if it’s trauma or something else that triggers Nick’s transformation. One shot is all it takes to kill a deer, Michael says. One shot changes everything. Big Buck Hunter this ain’t.
Which War? Vietnam
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: Fuckin’ A