SFC12: The Deer Hunter

Strap in, folks.  This is one is going to be rough.  With only a month left in my Summer Film Challenge 2012: Apocalypse Edition, I am getting in the Olympic spirit and making a strong, “Final Lap” push to finish the remaining 11 films before the summer is out.  Ryan and I recently got a great opportunity to cross one of our shared classics off the Challenge in spectacular fashion.  Ryan’s internship in Santa Monica happens to be very close to a tiny little theatre called the Aero, which is affiliated with the American Cinematheque – a society dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of classic cinema.  So, we carved some time out of our busy schedules to make the trip down there one evening and saw the 1978 Best Picture winner, The Deer Hunter, on the big screen.

And let’s just say that I doubt anything on earth could have really prepared us for it.

How is one to talk about this film?  The Deer Hunter is a powerfully disturbing movie, one that I don’t know that people can “like” but rather one that we can appreciate for it’s intense realism and unrelenting dedication giving me a true picture of the chaos of that age.  I have never seen a film about the Vietnam war that more viscerally and unashamedly depicts the horrors of war than Deer Hunter.

Briefly summarized, the film revolves around the lives of five small town friends who live, work, and hunt together.  Robert De Niro stars as Michael, a disciplined and introverted hunter drafted into Vietnam with his friend Nick (Walken).  They enjoy their last days of civilian life celebrating the marriage of their buddy, Steven (John Savage) and then all three are shipped overseas to experience the barbarity of war directly.  **SPOILER** The pair are abducted and stuck in a prison camp where they are forced to play Russian Roulette for the amusement of their captors.  Barely escaping alive, Michael and Steven return to the US, while Nick, still dealing with the emotional and psychological turmoil of his experiences, devolves into a madman.  Michael learns of this and flies back to Vietnam to bring his friend home, only to find him still competing in Russian Roulette games for money – all traces of sanity gone.  His last game goes sour and, upon bringing the fallen hero home, the community mourns the loss of their friend.  **END**

Normally, this is the part of the review where I would begin making jokes about the way Walken acts. However, here I cannot even begin to criticize his work.  Giving the greatest performance of his career, Christopher Walken masters the happy-go-lucky turned Kurtz character and gives life to one of the truest, most heart-wrenching roles I have ever seen.  His portrayal of the man caught up in the “Fascination with the Abomination” that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness explores is without doubt the epitome of that philosophy embodied.

Beyond Walken’s masterful performance, which earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the rest of the cast gave phenomenal performances.  Robert De Niro’s serious intensity plays out brilliantly as we watch his character’s love of hunting and rigorous discipline be stripped away as the horrors of war beset him.  And what can one say about Meryl Streep, other than that she is the perfect chamelion – morphing into whatever character she is given and providing a flawlessly passionate performance as always.  The supporting cast shines brightly behind the stars, adding to the story-world’s marvelously real feel, and ultimately they made me believe in the protagonists all the more. Really brilliant all around.

What truly inspired me about The Deer Hunter was the fact that it sought to be a film about “Life After”. Most films about war seek to express the visceral intensity of a single moment in history.  For example, Saving Private Ryan, a film I have never been particularly fond of, is about the extreme situation several thousand soldiers went through in storming the beaches of Normandy.  Consisting almost entirely of that ONE scene, the film then ends with a shot of the old man crying as he remembers that ONE moment in his life.

Deer Hunter chooses a different and, in my opinion, higher path by focusing not on the life-changing event itself, but on the life AFTER that event.  Instead of doing what countless Rom/Com’s do, this film starts on a marriage and then examines what life does to the newlyweds after the honeymoon. Rather than taking that low-hanging fruit of simply recreating a battle, Deer Hunter looks at the effect war has on the soldiers who fight it.  Not stopping at death, the filmmakers make us look at the life after that, and it is that narrative and psychological step which makes this film so much better than any war film I have ever seen.  It perfectly reflects the introspection that the Vietnam War forced Americans to partake in – exploring the world as it really is rather than as it is cinematically portrayed.

To illustrate how powerful this film is, let me tell you that by the end of the film, Ryan and I began to hear people in the audience weeping.  Not tears quietly running down faces, but great heaving sobs which racked my soul as well as theirs.  To me, a 21-year-old college student who’s only experience with war is having family and friends who knew it, the film meant to me only as much as an intellectual and emotional insight into the mentality of post-war America at that time.  But, to those people in the audience, Deer Hunter meant a return to the atrocities they had to live through themselves – either firsthand or by the memories of those friends and family who might not have truly made it back from Vietnam.  My heart went out to those people now living their own “life after” and I can honestly say a hearty congratulations to the filmmakers for making such a profoundly touching movie as this.

To recommend this film to you, I must highly caution that it is not something to be trifled with.  If you are seeking a war film that will lift your patriotic spirit and give you hope, then please find another film. The Deer Hunter is easily one of the most gripping and intense cinematic experiences I have every taken part in and so I do promote it to anyone who is looking for a film that can change their life.  If you are willing to be broken down to the core by a film that has no qualms handing you a tough three hour experience, you will hardly find a better candidate than this film.

Final Rating:  10//10

One final thought before I let this go.  This is the one and only film about the Vietnam War you will ever see that does NOT have a sequence set to CCR’s “Fortunate Son”!   🙂

Well there you go!  Let me know what you thought of this film in the comments below.  Also, check out the podcast below that Ryan and I did reviewing this film!  It gets interesting…

As I said previously, I will be rushing headlong towards September 5th – the first day of school and what Ryan and I have deemed the end of summer – trying to watch the remaining 10 films I have left, plus finishing my tv show.  I have never completed a Summer Film Challenge on time as of yet but I intend to make the last year of existence my first victory there.  So, get ready for a “Slew of Reviews” in the coming weeks and I hope you will join me in this race to the finish of the…
SUMMER FILM CHALLENGE 2012: APOCALYPSE EDITION!!!!

Please Comment Below and Subscribe!

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Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

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