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Movie Review: The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino
Written by Deric Washburn based on a story by Cimino, Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker
Universal, 1978

The Deer Hunter is a case study in a couple of great scenes translating into total, undeserved devotion for an entire film.  In this case, a three-hour, soul-sucking odyssey concerning Vietnam and its after-effects.  In other words, the poster above represents my feelings about this film.

In this, three friends, Michael (Robert De Niro, nominated for the third time), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken, who won the Supporting Actor Oscar in his first try) are about to leave their small town in Pennsylvania for Vietnam, where their lives will be changed forever.  Michael and Nick both vie for the affections of Linda (Meryl Streep, with the first of many Oscar noms, for Supporting Actress), and Steven is marrying a woman named Angela (Rutanya Alda) carrying a child, not his, before being sent to war.

The three friends team with Stanley (The Godfather’s John Cazale), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) for some one-last moments, basically some drinkin’, fightin’, and fuckin’, culminating in a big deer hunt.

This I described above takes one hour.  There are two more.

In the second hour comes the intense, famous Russian Roulette scene, where some Viet Cong are running a sick betting ring involving POW’s, which just happen at this point in time to include Michael, Steven, and Nick.  Michael has a great idea to get through this, but then a botched rescue breaks the three up again, with Nick making it and the others having to find another means for escape.

Inevitably, Michael ends up back home, where he hopes to get his life back on track, possibly even properly court Linda.  But still uncertain on the status of his friends, he hopes to be able to help them as well, leading (finally) to the ending, which is the other intense part of the film, also involving Russian Roulette.

All I’m saying is, why does it take so much time to tell this story?  Before anyone raises an objection to the old “too long” criticism, you should realize that the running time has no bearing on my opinion unless the running time is filled with boredom.  This easily could have been two hours, and today The Deer Hunter would still have the same sort of acclaim, and be a much better film.  And yes, of course, Peter Zinner won for his editing, one of five overall awards. 

I’ve watched the movie twice, and suffered twice.  It should surprise no one that Michael Cimino, one of Hollywood’s great could-have-beens, failed spectacularly with Heaven’s Gate three years later, a film grouped along with Ishtar and Waterworld as the great suck-cess stories of all time. 

In 1978, The Deer Hunter beat out the other Vietnam-sucks film Coming Home, Warren Beatty’s ironically-titled (considering what was in store for Cimino) Heaven Can Wait, Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, and the other big political wasteland film, Alan Parker’s Midnight Express.  Honestly, I don’t have a big favorite out of this, but Midnight Express is better than this film.  1978 doesn’t look like a memorable year, so a movie like The Deer Hunter winning isn’t surprising.

The only hope I have is, if anyone runs across this review and they like the film, to tell me what’s so great about it.  I eagerly await a pointed, scathing missive on this review to tell me how wrong I am, because it’s one of the great mysteries of all time to me how this movie is revered.


Comment from Jonathan Watkins
Time: January 21, 2007, 12:38 am

No one challenging you on this; too bad, I was curious to see some debate. It’s been so long since I’ve seen it, I couldn’t even begin to get into it. I do remember liking it; however, the only two scenes I can really remember are the two you hyped up, so maybe that’s a tell-all right there. But like you said, maybe it wasn’t a very strong year; judging from the other nominees it’s easy to see why.

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