Before he sunk a studio with Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino made The Deer Hunter. Released just three years after the horrific reality of the Vietnam War came to an end, and one year before Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now quickly took it into the realm of metaphors and nightmares, Cimino’s sweeping character study occupied the uneasy segue between war and ‘post’-war. In fact, the aching beauty of The Deer Hunter in every frame evokes a sense of post-everything; it’s very much concerned with pitting its central characters against a howling void of purposelessness, contrasted to their time spent in war-torn Vietnam where, between the chance of a bullet being in the chamber or not being in the chamber in the film’s famous Russian Roulette scene, there existed only clear, pure purpose.
Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage play small-town steelworkers, restless thirty-somethings with an easy proclivity for shifting from best-of-friends braggadocio to making each other eat knuckle sandwiches, while the women in their lives look on exhaustedly. The three of them sign up to ship over to Vietnam; this is easy for them, for their America is their town, and no bigger – except when they embark on hunting trips to the surrounding beautiful mountainous territories. This wilderness, where they chase down deer on a mist-covered, primordial landscape, is very much an exploded man cave; The Deer Hunter, while it eventually becomes an analysis of the veteran’s psyche, deals first and foremost with masculinity.
More than that, the characters’ perceptions of their own masculinity; all they know is patriotism without the sacrifice, and the biggest worry in their lives is whether they’ve remembered to bring an extra pair of boots with them on a hunting trip. For them, enlisting is a means to preserve that way of life; little do they know that when – if – they come back, they won’t be the same. The way of life they cherish is gone forever the moment they witness a Vietcong soldier throw a grenade into a hiding place filled with innocent civilians, or are forced to rot away in a wooden cage half-submerged in a disease-ridden river. Or even worse, made to face off against a dear friend in an evil game at the design of their captives, where the possibility of forced suicide hangs in the balance with certain death. There is no going back.
The film is roughly divided into three: The initial chapter where De Niro’s Michael, Walken’s Nick, Savage’s Stevey and also John Cazale’s Stan, while away the time they have left with a wedding, much drinking, and hunting; the second section is where they find out what Hell looks like, fighting for their lives in the Cambodian jungle; the third, where a return home brings back both fractured psyches and torn relationships. And Cimino, stretching the movie to just over three hours, certainly takes his time; watching these friends go about their normal lives, throwing jabs at one another while enjoying the little time they have left as a group, feels like we’ve almost spent the entire day with them too. Despite the appearance of padding, this works to the film’s advantage; by letting us wear their shoes for such a long span of time, we become not just spectator, but one of the guys.
The sheer length of The Deer Hunter, while helping to nail its point home, does weigh heavily; it’s easy to think of the screenplay not as a great example of economy, but Vilmos Zsigmond’s epic cinematography and Cimino’s deft direction do certify it as a masterwork of immersion. Chiefly to that immersion, of course, are the towering performances; has De Niro, in a naturalistic role, ever been better? And a young Meryl Streep makes love interest Linda a fully-formed entity, a spectre who gets on with life, but who also waits in the shadows in the vain hope that when Nick returns, they can continue as they always intended to. Her staggering work here earned the first of her eighteen Oscar nominations, while the film itself was awarded Best Picture and Best Director. It’s good to know that the Academy, sometimes, can be spot on.
‘Do you ever think about Vietnam?’ Michael asks Nick in a quieter moment. That’s some peculiar wording, for he says it before they ship out; it’s a clever foreshadowing, an effective parallel to the ideas of ‘before’ and ‘after’ that haunt the movie at every turn. Still, Nick falters in responding, his voice wobbling with inarticulacy. Just like a battle-scarred veteran, he can’t answer. And that’s the greatest, yet saddest thing to take away from The Deer Hunter; that through our faults, we are the forgers of our own destinies. But they are rarely destinies we want. Can we ever escape the before and the after?
The Deer Hunter is back in cinemas on August 1st.