Tense and sweet, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter seeks to be his own invincible god without having to confront any unforeseen circumstance. Until he can put aside ego and say “I love you” to near-and-dears, his world continues to break. Though the film’s subjectivity strains the use of symbolic devices (e.g., spilt wine), the epic sensibility dovetails the hero’s own — we partake of his self-absorption and heartache.
The movie starts in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a Polish-American steeltown, a few days before friends Michael (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage) go to Vietnam; today little Stevie is getting married. Michael is the undesignated leader of the group that includes other, less enigmatic types: thick ‘n’ hearty John (George Dzundza), rat-like Stan (John Cazale), and Axel the hairy ape (Chuck Aspegren). When the factory whistle blows at the end of the shift, the guys troop down to John’s bar where the swinging rapport of a good drunk is as hallowed a rite as attending church on Sundays. And, like a larger-than-life anchor of the community, the church echoes Michael’s high self-ideal.
The jubilant wedding reception expands on Michael’s yearning reminiscence of the occasion. An hour in, we feel a comfortable intimacy with characters because of the veneration of the ethnic ceremony that universalizes them. Note: the whole film is theatrical, but a loopy memory context triggers this pulp sensibility and the subtly affective acting (see Meryl Streep) offsets any leftover staginess.
Post-reception, the men go to the Alleghenies for one last deer hunt. The “one shot” chance for communion between Michael and prey is a test of both whim and restraint. It’s a no-equivocating, all-maximized effort. Away from the church setting, he overtakes the Spirit by yielding to the natural environment, which enables him to stay a path his friends cannot. Escalating the deer into a holy sacrifice (borne out by the film’s celestial choirs and panoramic vistas) might ratify Michael’s own privately deified status if he weren’t so withdrawn into himself: Can he take a life and give an equal sum back?
Then we are thrust into high-speed Vietnam, against which our would-be heroes’ ignorant bliss is buoyed. It’s the catalyst that fazes Michael’s power over kismet, and emasculates him. Captured by Vietcong who are savagely portrayed, Michael and his P.O.W. comrades play marathon Russian Roulette — one of the most harrowing thirty minutes of violence ever filmed. Shamanic, he defies fate in redirecting their energies towards staying alive. They succeed, though we learn that Michael’s thwarting of nature has its own repercussions.
Back in Clairton, Michael’s good deeds bring him no peace of mind. The movie debunks traditional war-movie heroism for a cutting probe into fractured, post-combat existence. When he’s separated from Nick and Steve in their struggle to get home, the readjustment process is a suffering punishment. And, in the penultimate climax, the deer hunter abstains from taking a life to benefit his own. But a trip back to Saigon doesn’t mean he’ll be able to save a friend from drowning in blood, despite his noble desire for community cohesion.
The Deer Hunter is neither for nor against war; nor is it wimpy, though machismo is definitely shown as an ungainly characteristic. Vietnam’s simply a gory, more immediate challenge to sanity and resolve than other severe human experiences. In totaling the film’s taut exploration of Michael’s experience, the sometimes skewed logic is appropriate. This is his melancholy nightmare — a black & white morality fastened to emotion that is garishly colored.
Near the end, the deer hunter transforms. He’s become a supplement to (rather than the sole source of) his fate. Is his patriotism slack or ablaze? Have he and the deer become one? You decide. It’s a great movie.