THE DEER HUNTER (Michael Cimino, 1978)

The 1970s constituted U.S. cinema’s most dismal decade, and its Oscar-winning best pictures composed a series of trash (Patton, Rocky, etc.)—with two exceptions: the mediocre Godfather-sequel (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) and Michael Cimino’s rock-solid The Deer Hunter, a study of war’s impact on three buddies from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist to fight in Vietnam. It is a film of rituals: one’s wedding the weekend before all three young men leave; war; the funeral of one of the three.
     The central metaphor, powerful, is provided by the Russian roulette that (fictionally) the Vietcong forces on prisoners, coldly gambling on the outcome; all this perfectly encapsulates war’s fearsomeness and random killing, but also, ironically, war’s addictive nature. Nick (Christopher Walken, best supporting actor Oscar) remains behind in Vietnam, rather than go home, to keep playing the “game,” sending home anonymously his earnings.
     There are two other affecting passages. In one, home from combat, Michael can no longer shoot deer; a sign of Cimino’s coarseness is that Michael’s whispered aloud “Okay” is followed by Michael’s shouting out to Nature, “Okay!” After Nick is buried, the mourners group-sing “God Bless America!” finding a poignant place where sentimental patriotism and dry, unsentimental plea intersect.
     Robert De Niro is superb as Michael, whose sexual ambiguity adds immeasurably to the film’s capacity to observe reality quietly and intriguingly—and at a distance. Does Michael refrain from pursuing girls because he is in love with Linda, who is off-limits as friend Nick’s girl?—or is he so caring toward Linda because he secretly loves Nick? Meryl Streep, by the way, is lovely as Linda; as in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), Streep had not yet cultivated those distracting, self-serving mannerisms that would mark her transformation from dedicated actress to star.

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