The Deer Hunter (1978): A Haunting, Powerful Masterpiece
As my journey to watch and review every film on the IMDb Top 250 List continues, the next stop on the list is another classic that is beloved by many, The Deer Hunter! The film is considered to be a heart-wrenching, difficult watch by many while being one of the longest films on the IMDb Top 250, clocking in at over three hours long. But has The Deer Hunter aged liked a fine wine or has it succumbed to different societal views over time? The following review will be spoiler free.
The Deer Hunter is directed by Michael Cimino and stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale. We follow a group of friends in the Pittsburgh area as they prepare to be sent out to Vietnam for the war. However, before the men get shipped out to war, they go on one last deer hunt together. The event perfectly mirrors the horrors of the war that they must all eventually endure. After the war, Mike (De Niro) must learn to deal with the events that scarred him while attempting to come to terms with a new found perspective on life.
Upon its release in 1978, The Deer Hunter was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. As a note, the film marked the first time that Meryl Streep was nominated for an Oscar (best supporting actress). For those counting at home, she has since become the most nominated actor or actress in history with twenty nominations.
Akin to many films that have garnered approximately the same praise from fans and critics, The Deer Hunter went over-budget and over-schedule in addition to other development issues. Weirdly enough, each member of the core writing team has a different story about how the film came to be. The director, Michael Cimino, claims to have fed Deric Washburn lines of dialogue for the script while scouting various locations for the film only to found out that Washburn’s script was almost complete nonsense upon reading it, which resulted in Washburn’s firing. However, Washburn later claimed to have written the entire script in less than a month only to then be fired by Cimino so he could take the credit for the film.
Either way, the film stirred up much controversy with its production issues in combination with its subject matter in the late 1970’s.
What I Liked
The Deer Hunter is a perfect example of why many consider Robert De Niro to be one of the best to ever step in front of a camera.
When you think of some of the best actors working in today’s Hollywood, a lot of them lack one noticeable trait: subtlety. In order to create a compelling performance, most actors have to act big and loud, forcing everyone to notice them onscreen. De Niro is certainly worthy of your attention, but he doesn’t need to scream to get it.
De Niro commands the screen just by the look in his eyes. There’s many moments where he could’ve emoted with a ton of outward feelings, but all you need to see is his eyes and you understand the pain that he has from his experiences in the war. Upon returning from Vietnam, De Niro’s performance is so nuanced and skilled that it’s almost breathtaking. You understand the grief he’s under without him having to break down and bawl his eyes out.
Then, when De Niro loses it, it makes it all the more powerful, showing that his emotions have finally boiled over the tipping point. The Deer Hunter may be difficult to watch, but it’s worth it to see De Niro.
What I Liked..Continued
This film is the perfect example of the phrase “show, don’t tell.” There are countless sequences throughout the film where minimal (if any) dialogue is used. However, the scenes set by director Michael Cimino are so powerful and poetic that any extra dialogue would detract from the scene. It really speaks to Cimino’s solid direction to allow extended moments within a three hour film to continue uninterrupted. Many directors today would truncate these moments, especially the first act of the film. However, in its mundane, inconsequential feel is the roots for the misery that awaits our main characters.
Surprisingly, the moments that feel meaningless in The Deer Hunter actually have the most meaning. Some of the smallest moments in the film have an underlying symbolism that drives home the point that Michael Cimino and his crew attempted to convey. Other than The Deer Hunter being a layered story regarding how man tries to deal with the terrors of war, it’s truly about the human psyche. It delves into what type of threshold we have for pain in all forms. More importantly, what we do after that threshold is reached.
What I Liked…Continued…Continued
But The Deer Hunter doesn’t just have symbolism, it has some of the most tense incidents in film. Those who are aware of the film know that I’m referring to the countless bouts of Russian roulette. Those instances are filled with so much white-knuckled tension that many were appalled by the movie in 1978. Those who stick with the film will find even more emotion in these scenes. The best of which involves De Niro in one of his finest moments as an actor.
These scenes are all tough to watch. That much is a given. They become even more tense as you become more invested in each character. As the film progresses, the tension ratchets up even more, making it more likely that you’ll look away.
In the end, The Deer Hunter may be one of the most dark films ever put to screen. Fueled by a powerful performance by De Niro, the film deserves all the praise it gets. I do believe an A+ is in order here.
Although many critics have The Deer Hunter among the best films of all time, many fail to bring it up in conversation when discussing the best films ever made. If you haven’t seen it yet, well what are you waiting for? Get to it!
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