THE DEER HUNTER (1978): A movie review
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Sweet and tense, 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 upon 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 a final deer hunt. The “one shot” chance for communion between Michael and prey is a test of both whim and restraint. It is a no-equivocating, all-maximized effort. Away from the church setting, the deer hunter 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the film’s celestial choirs and panoramic vistas) might ratify Michael’s own privately deified status if he weren’t so withdrawn into himself: Can he take a life and give an equal sum back?