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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4 thoughts on “The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)

  1. I find this to be an incredibly bitter and uncharitable review of this film.

    “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.””

    The characters aren’t “cutesy”. Some of them like Stan have particularly glaring faults in the way they treat women and their friends. Moreover, Steve is quite pathetic in how much of a man-child he is. And the love affair between Linda and Mike comes about because Nick, Linda’s lover, is practically gone, both she and Mike need comfort, and because they have unrequited feelings for each other. It’s bittersweet when it’s present and fizzles out quickly. It’s far from cute; it’s depressing as hell.

    Also, how can the characters of this movie be both “cutesy” and “defiantly ugly and disturbing” at the same time? Is it because the filmmaker treats them with a heart and tries to see the good in them despite their faults? Or have you just not sorted out your own feelings on this film enough to make a sober judgment?

    “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.”

    The movie takes its time with the characters, immersing us in their world, their values, and their characters. What you get is a very intimate perception of working-class male friendship that is uncommon in cinema. Also, the film is not racist. It’s just a film about three friends who are traumatized by war. The one-sided appearance of it is the result of the filmmaker Cimino’s sympathetic portrayal of the main characters, scarred by the war and those who’ve fallen prey to the war’s madness, the opposing Viet Cong. The Viet Cong’s hostility is a reflection of the nastiness of war, not how nasty the Viet Cong are. (In fact, the presence of the French Julien Grinda supervising and organizing the Russian roulette games implies that rich white people were ultimately responsible for turning Vietnam into a hotbed of violence.)

    And in light of the pointless suffering the characters endure, shown in terrifying detail as the film unfolds, I would argue that the grief-driven rendering of “God Bless America” at the end shows how naive is the jingoism and patriotism exhibited by the characters during the wedding. Some MCA executives certainly thought so: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2008/03/warmovies200803. But this isn’t Cimino’s purpose either. His purpose for including that scene is to show how “regular folks” respond to grief, by uniting around a common ideal, however wrong-headed that ideal may be.

    “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.”

    First, the Russian roulette element was taken from a screenplay by Louis Garfinkel and Quinn Redeker called THE MAN WHO CAME TO PLAY, about Russian Roulette in Las Vegas. Cimino and Deric Washburn, his co-writer, relocated it to Vietnam. Cimino didn’t make it up on his own.

    Second, relocating it to Vietnam makes a statement not about the North Vietnamese, but about the nature of war in general. War is a traumatizing experience for innocent people of all cultures and walks of life, and the Russian roulette scene works because it’s a metaphor for the unpredictably-traumatic nature of war. Every time one goes to fight, it is a matter of chance whether they will die or survive. One is actively gambling with one’s life, and the Russian roulette scene epitomizes this perfectly.

    Also, though Russian roulette was likely not played by the Viet Cong, despite Cimino’s later claims about “newspaper articles from Singapore” proving otherwise, it is plausible. People who have been stretched thin physically and psychologically through oppression, war, or socioeconomic hardship have a tendency to take out their frustrations and sadistic urges on others. In fact, a scene that visually echoes DEER HUNTER’s Russian roulette material is found in HEAVEN’S GATE, where the oppressed immigrants are placing bets and cheering around a bloody, violent cockfight.

    “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.”

    That scene is meant to be a joke, reflecting how Axel is stupid but also friendly, easygoing, and loyal. His character is developed in earlier sequences both before and after the wedding. More character development is shown in the scene immediately following the Twinkie exchange, when Michael refuses to give Stan his spare boots. In this scene, we see that Stan acts tougher than he actually is, his lack of preparation for the hunt showing how insecure he is, a notion that’s developed in scenes before and after this (before, his punching his girlfriend at the wedding, after, his threatening to shoot Axel to prove he’s macho). By contrast, this scene shows Michael is the most-secure character of them all. His reverence for hunting shows he has a tough mental constitution that allows him to push through and survive the trauma of war. His innocence and wide-eyed enthusiasm for life has vanished by the end of the film, sure, but his strength as a person stays intact. He’s a rock for everyone in the film. He’s not just a “smirking douchebag” who becomes a “frowning douchebag”.

    “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.”

    Who hasn’t met a survivor like Mike, a sensitively-introspective person like Nick, a well-meaning but naive fellow like Steve, or even an insecure pretender with a streak of goodness like Stan? They’re not non-existent archetypes; they’re universally-recognizable types of people.

    “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.”

    Cimino doesn’t just show how the war changes the men through a jarring jump-cut (which, I must add, is preceded by John’s playing a melancholy Chopin piece). He also shows their change during scenes where the boys are back home. The paraplegic Steve has been left rattled by war to the point where he doesn’t want to come back home to his wife and son. Retreating into his naive childishness (hence the scene earlier with his overbearing mother), he wants to stay at the VA hospital and not accept the responsibilities of an grown man with a wife and child. The introspective Nick, traumatized by his experiences, sinks into despair, literally reliving the scarring events of the war (the Russian roulette game) over and over again, losing himself in the process.

    This film could have been more sensitive towards the Viet Cong, but there’s definitely more to this film than you give credit.

    One more thing: “The best by a country mile is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket”? Say what you will about Cimino, but I’d rather have a director who has a heart towards his characters than one who doesn’t. I find that Kubrick’s work is colder, more vile, and far more insidiously right-wing (see A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) than Cimino’s work.

    • Thanks for your comment, which is very perceptive and thorough. I have seen The Deer Hunter twice but the last time was a good number of years ago and I intensely disliked the experience on both occasions. “Uncharitable” is probably a fair description, as I wrote much of the above when I first saw it, at which point I was 22 or 23. I would likely be able to answer your remarks with greater depth if I saw the movie again but I honestly don’t plan to do that anytime soon. To speak specifically to the racism matter, I don’t think I’m alone at all in interpreting the film this way; the racism, however, wouldn’t necessarily preclude me from admiring the film, but I still find the manner in which we are shown the war to be lazy and clumsy. I agree my use of “cutesy” is ambiguous but what I meant was “cutesy” in the specific fashion of a blue-collar caricature meant to appear “regular” to a more urbane audience, presented to them by a Yale grad. That’s probably uncharitable too.

      Our differing views on Full Metal Jacket specifically and Kubrick in general — my relationship with A Clockwork Orange is complicated, and I think it’s the least successful of his major films, and perhaps I’m naive but I have trouble thinking of “insidiously right-wing” messaging in his other films — likely preclude us from finding much common ground here. I cannot understand viewing FMJ as a less sophisticated and realistic film than The Deer Hunter; its spareness and unfiltered anger are so much more to my taste. But again, I deeply appreciate your attention and engagement and would be happy to explore this further if I catch Cimino’s film again.

      • Thank you for the reply.

        I am very well aware of the overwhelming backlash toward THE DEER HUNTER’s treatment of the Viet Cong, but I stand by my statements nevertheless. And while Cimino was a Yale grad, his visual eye made him very attentive to the little details of the main characters’ lives – the details of the steel mill, the Russian wedding, etc. – to the point where I hardly see the film as presenting mere caricatures of blue-collar Americans.

        Regarding Kubrick, I should have been clearer. The right-wing views are most pronounced in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but they can arguably be found in THE SHINING and 2001, too. THE SHINING is very sympathetic towards Jack Torrance’s misogynistic hatred of Wendy; hence, the unflattering way Kubrick films Duvall throughout the film (not to mention the number of unnecessary takes he had her do on-set), as well as the way his camera just eats up Jack Nicholson’s hammy, gleeful, hateful performance (and moves with his axe!). If THE SHINING works as a film, it’s because we’re terrified of Kubrick. Moreover, there is a negative attitude towards human nature and the individual in 2001 that seems to reflect right-wing, almost-authoritarian views; the film does not care about Dave Bowman as a person with experiences and emotions and cherished memories, but merely as a vessel for some kind of higher power. (I actually prefer SOLARIS which is, by coincidence, a ponderous, slow-moving Russian film…)

        I will say this about Kubrick: Compared to Cimino, he was a far more responsible filmmaker. Cimino wore his ego proudly, on his sleeve, like Erich von Stroheim, and ruined his career with his own self-indulgence.

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