The Deer Hunter


Michael Cimino’s Vietnam epic ranks up with “Apocalypse Now” as one of the great war movies that isn’t really about war at all; but where “Now” was about the darkest parts of a mans soul, The Deer Hunter is about the slowly changing world, how that grand sweep of time doesn’t bring any answers or closure, just good people caught in bad situations. Released in 1978 by Universal Pictures, the film would go on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The film boasts a crop of some of the greatest actors of all time, set against a story in three definitive acts: captured by the steady and patient cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who had just come off from an Academy Award a year earlier for his work in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi landmark “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.

Robert De Niro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken play Michael, Steven, and Nick respectively; a more well defined trio you may never see in film. But they are only three people in a small town of many, and the supporting cast is just as important as it’s leading men. Meryl Streep, John Cazale, George Dzundza and Chuck Aspegren fill out the cast.

Take a moment to admire the late John Cazales work. He was dying of bone cancer while working on this film, and he passed away before it was released, but his short lived career was a highlight reel. He starred as the weak brother Fredo in The Godfather I and II, and opposite Gene Hackman in The Conversation and Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Here he plays a pivotal role in one of the films best scenes. After the virtuoso opening wedding sequence the men go hunting, Stanley, Cazale’s character, has once again forgotten his boots. Michael refuses to lend him his extra pair based on the fact that he’s “always got your head up your ass when your up here”. Theres quiet frustration shared between the two and it’s all mediated by a calm Nick, Christopher Walken at his most solemn and understanding. The scene ends with De Niro shooting his rifle into the air out of frustration.

These early hunting scenes are among my favorite in the film. Michael, deadly serious about the sport, hops along the Appalachian’s, chasing a buck. “You want to kill it in one shot, one shot, nobody understands that” he says. He’s in it for the hunt, Steve is at home celebrating his wedding, and Nick just wants to think. “I like the trees…you know…the way the trees are different”.

The the second act in Vietnam shows very little of the war. Most of the time is occupied with Michael, Nick and Steve held as prisoners, gambling their life on Russian Roulette. The game, looked at through Nick’s eyes as indescribably cruel randomness, becomes the only thing that will make sense to him after the war.

To Michael, the only thing that makes sense is hunting, and so he does. In his final hunt he chases the largest buck through the woods and misses a perfect shot. “Okay” he says, before sitting down in the grass. He yells it this time, “Okay!” and looks out at the mountains, defeated by nature. At this point in the film I always reflect back towards the begening, as the camera shows a closeup of Michaels kill. Eyes rolling back, struggling in the grass and dirt, unsure of how he got there.

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~ by rozco on February 4, 2009.

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