The story follows three blue collar workers in small-town America: Mike (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) who are preparing to ship out to Vietnam. Steven gets married and before they leave they engage in their past-time of deer hunting with another co-worker Stan (John Cazale). Also Mike’s been falling for Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep). Of course despite their anxiety to get there, they eventually discover exactly what kind of hell-hole the Vietnam War is, not only witnessing the horror of guerilla warfare, but enduring a harsh experience as POWs that’ll change them forever.
The film’s three acts are very obviously the set-up, conflict, and aftermath, and the transitions between are very sudden and noticeable which comes off as a little pretentious. Throughout, I can’t help but feel Michael Cimino’s reaching a little high. Though I like the deer hunting bits and how they connect with the action in Vietnam, particularly the “one shot” motif. For the most part the film still works because of the deeply personal story being told about the relationships between these characters. This isn’t a film about war as much as it is about people impacted by war which was a message that needed to be addressed when this film came out. The Vietnam War had only just ended and the PTSD as well as other permanent psychological effects it left on veterans hadn’t really been portrayed in film yet. True the overt patriotism at times could be grating (the ending scene was really on the nose) but these characters do pull you through.
Robert De Niro as with every role he played during that decade is fantastic as Mike, the leader of the three. Though you can tell from the start and in the wedding scene, he’s not the most stable, he does feel like an average guy who’s kind of destroyed by the war. The detail of Mike having a beard in civilian life but not in Vietnam is a good physical wedge between the two worlds. And being De Niro, I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually got a job as a steel worker for a time prior to this film. The scene where he struggles to shoot a deer after his experiences in Vietnam is also one of the movie’s best. Of the three friends, John Savage as Steven is the one who makes the least of an impression. But he does perform the important scenes for his character well. When Steven breaks down in the prison, it really works, and later when it’s revealed he lost his legs, you can feel the sorrow of all that’s been taken from him. It’s an emotional scene between him and De Niro, as it’s their subtext that says it all. John Cazale in his last movie role is really good. All his scenes were filmed first so he could be in the movie, which makes me think he was initially supposed to go to Vietnam as well, but Cazale’s health forced him to be written out of that part of the movie. He carries himself with more weight than he has in his previous known roles which given his condition is very impressive. And though I’ll admit I’ve often found Meryl Streep to be slightly overrated, she is very good in this movie, identifiable in her attempts and inevitable failings to understand what Mike’s been through. But it’s Christopher Walken who steals the show and not for the reasons you’d think Christopher Walken would steal the show. He’s actually legitimately good in this movie! Sure there are a few typical Walken-isms (“I like the ways trees…are”), but the quiet innocence of his character works pretty well and especially once he’s in Vietnam and we’re actually seeing his transformation, he’s really convincing. We’re given the chance to see the process of his cracking and more than that, I can see why Walken won an Oscar.
And it brings me to the most famous motif of this movie and the subject of its climactic scene. Disregarding the fact that prisoners of war were never forced to play Russian roulette for the amusement of their captors, these scenes are incredibly intense: the fear in everyone’s faces, the genuine thought that one of the main characters may die. This was a Vietnam movie so I was expecting at least one of either Mike, Steven, or Nick to be killed, but to my surprise, they all survived the war. Nick develops a particular luck for the game and it becomes his life after the war, coerced into gambling his life for money. The stakes of the scene are conveyed well enough when Mike and Nick escape, but it’s the scene at the end after the war, when Mike returns to Vietnam to find Nick so shell-shocked he hardly knows anything but Russian roulette. The mood of the scene is great, De Niro and Walken play it terrifically, the pacing’s on point and the way it ends is shocking but simultaneously expected. And you feel so much for poor Nick and what’s become of him. Again Walken really commits to the role without going over-the-top and I think he makes the movie!
It’s because of performances like this and the really vivid scenes they excel in that elevates The Deer Hunter above other generic war movies. It really feels like it’s a tragic story about these characters in this rough time. In some ways it reminds me of one of my favourite war films All Quiet on the Western Front in how it portrays the anxious young men going off to war unprepared for what they’re in for. Michael Cimino wouldn’t direct another major film apart from Heaven’s Gate in 1980, a notorious failure. As decent a director as he was on this, it was a combination of other factors that made this film work so I can perhaps see why no other project worked out for him. But at least he can be proud to have made such an interesting, well-acted memorable film as The Deer Hunter.