The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Michael Cimino was never much of a creative decisionmaker. That trait represents a bulk of his legacy now, even after his brief burst of power faltered forever outside of a far-flung cult of critics and film students. His work reflects an attraction to sprawl and hugeness in the manner of David Lean and the attention-mongering epics of 1950s Hollywood; there isn’t anything wrong with that, nor is there much wrong with his pretension to European art-film pacing, which somehow both explains and renders more baffling his popularity overseas. The lethal element of something like The Deer Hunter, rather, is the way these not wholly conflicting fixations gel with a very American, very jingoistic sentimentalism. The hollowness of the greeting-card weepy emotions and histrionics investigated by this wrongheaded, deeply offensive film is magnified exponentially by both Cimino’s expansive canvas, all broad movements with little detail, and by his belief that his own humorless, self-absorbed earnestness is enough to lend importance to what he has to say, which isn’t much.

America produced five key films about Vietnam in the ten-year period between 1978 and 1988. The best by a country mile is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, an authetic tragedy of bracing art and realism both. Somewhere in the middle is the hypnotically overambitious Apocalypse Now, the now-forgotten but socially potent Coming Home, and the comically straightforward, idiosyncrasy-free Platoon. Hundreds of similar films have now come and gone since then, the wounds of a national shame long since filtered out of American moviemaking, replaced by the numbness that’s so typical of us; we can’t help now remembering Apocalypse Now and Platoon primarily as action films, even if the former is an impressionistic and colorful one, and we are far more likely to memorialize FMJ in the context of its now-legendary director’s career than we are to frame it in terms of what it says about Vietnam and us. History, as usual, leaves our grasp, replaced by iconography. So it’s difficult to know whether it’s heartening or terrifying that after all this, The Deer Hunter remains a deeply upsetting, uncomfortable movie, a commercialized gravestone for human feeling, a situation comedy of loss, murder, and hate packed with cutesy characters, a cutesier love affair, and a defiantly ugly, disturbing Hollywood perception of “regular folks.”

At arm’s length, underneath the act of defiant, cheap bitterness and naked, opportunistic pandering that The Deer Hunter is, you can sense the cogs turning: Cimino’s structure has a bareness and logic that lends itself automatically to the most tiresome kind of film school explication. The film’s inauthenticity wouldn’t matter, would even be a reasonable enough marriage to its physical vastness, if it weren’t such a painfully Method acted and meticulously mounted act of pretending toward truth. One of Cimino’s rather tired methods of achieving what he sees as truth is to overexplain, to repeat. His first dozen shots make the same point in the same manner, and through a scene of a wedding that lasts nearly an hour, through many scenes of “the boys” being boys and cavorting around like boys must on the eve of their near-certain deaths, through the self-consciously symbolic moments of hunting and reflecting, there’s the sense that stating then restating and restating again are the primarily recognized method of making a point about camaraderie, day-to-day Typical Life, the innocence of placid Americans about to be corrupted by the evil war clearly forced upon them by the Vietnamese because that’s totally what happened. Not that there isn’t some appeal, actually, to the complete immersion we get into the wedding as an outlandish spectacle and a cinematic stunt (it really does go on forever), but in the context of what this terribly racist and simple-minded film is trying to say, it’s just one more piece of the puzzle of tastelessness. Cimino’s idea of a tone poem is simply too vapidly directed and arrhythmic to operate the way he thinks it should.

A jump cut — ripping through as though even Cimino himself was tiring of idyllic mountain landscapes — leads us away from working, deer hunting, and romancing into the dregs of war wherein Americans are besieged by ruthless games of Russian roulette, a thing that Cimino completely and totally made up because he has no actual clue what happened in Vietnam or why; his sole interest is the crafting of an op-ed Boogeyman. At least when we turn on talk radio we’re conscious of what bilge we’re being sold; it isn’t presented to us as important art. Cimino’s 181 minutes of ignorance and fear wander out into a catalog of mournful commentaries about the return to society by a now dark and troubled Robert De Niro, who courts his buddy’s girlfriend and eventually spills back into the war zone to try and find erstwhile Christopher Walken, who must then figure in one of the most disgustingly manipulative and emptily tearjerking climaxes ever shot, which is then followed by the most cringe-inducing ending to a major Hollywood picture (a misty-eyed, ruthlessly manipulative chorus of “God Bless America” that leaves my mouth hanging open), capping off one of the five or six worst films ever to be recognized as a classic. All that rescues us from being infuriated by the film’s slanted, inflated egotism and cartoonish universe is our boredom at its inability to economize itself.

One common argument in defense of The Deer Hunter is that its stylized treatment of the war isn’t the point at all, that it rather is about male friendship. To begin with, male friendship is far from a topic that’s desperately in need of further cinematic treatment, and if it must be done it should be done with characters who seem to breathe and exist as real life. Although the performances here are a mixed bag — Robert De Niro plays the usual smirking douchebag Robert De Niro role until the war Changes Him and he becomes frowny douchebag Robert De Niro; John Cazale is, as usual, thwarted in his attempts to do anything worthwhile with his material; Christopher Walken reprises his hilarious manic-depressive oddball from Annie Hall except now we’re supposed to take his dead-eyed fatalism seriously for some incomprehensible reason; and Meryl Streep takes the boys’ comically boring abuse with gentle good humor — they are not the problem. The writing is the problem. It is excruciatingly bad. If the silliness and nasty right-wing subtext of the story itself weren’t enough, Cimino has no clue how to create or to develop characters. The Deer Hunter is played out like a conversation witnessed from afar; the characters and their private worlds never become remotely familiar to us. Instead, we simply watch them as they are operated like puppets, doing their best to appear “typical” and “all-American” and to sell this complete lie of Vietnam as a primarily American tragedy, indeed as America as something to celebrate in light of the war rather than something to spit at for its role in all of this.

What’s incredible is that Cimino clearly believes he’s providing his audience with therapy, catharsis with his Hallmark pap. His presentation of real inner lives is limited to things like an (admittedly ballsy) excruciatingly long shot in which a car stops, starts, turns around, and starts again while it’s being chased by a man caught in a tired fratboy joke. He ends up with a movie that’s crushingly superficial. His idea of characterization is to show a man dipping a Twinkie in mustard and talking about it. He’s playing games here with a group of archetypes that may as well not exist, yet he somehow expects them to function as vessels for us. We’re even deprived of the opportunity to explore how the war changes the men in any kind of depth, since we’re thrown into chaos unexpectedly. Thereafter, the more things happen to these people, the less engrossed we are; there’s so much business, but when the story itself is so ridiculous and audaciously saccharine, what utility can its supposed consciousness hold for us? I’m sure if Walken’s Nick were here, he’d have some crazy monologue about trees or something to try and explain it all to us, and it’d sound really deep and shit and would mean absolutely fucking nothing, just like this empty, putrid trifle of self-pitying macho aggression.

[Contains a few sentences from a review originally posted in 2006.]

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