Film Review: ‘The Deer Hunter’


Structures within the time frame of empirical perspectives have a tendency to unknowingly look in the wrong direction. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) overcomes this problem by focusing on an intensely felt portrayal of the characterisation within a closed community that allows us to see the universality of a doom-inflected generation that blindly followed the path shown by the state. Time allows the peaceful reign to negate the demand for instantaneous discourse and the setting up of ideological walls that soon become entrenched. Over 30 years since it was first released, The Deer Hunter has become what it always was: a deep-rooted immersion into American blue-collar life.

The debates that have surrounded The Deer Hunter since the seventies points towards F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old adage: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Cimino’s drama does far more than simply function; it’s an awkward, uneasy paean to a dying class that will soon be destroyed by the oncoming march of globalisation. The film begins in Clairton, a small industrial town in Pennsylvania mostly populated by Russian Americans who work in one of the many steel mills that hum with noise in the backdrop. Friends Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are about to leave for Vietnam, but before they do so Steven is wed while Nick proposes (to a young Meryl Streep).

Cimino dampens the ardour for a climax of excited military aggression by ruminating for the first hour in Clairton, focusing on the trio, their friends and families. This sharp gaze is magnified via ceremonies and rituals which act as echo chambers and doubling devices, allowing Cimino to slowly observe the trifecta that will be visited by tragedy in all its forms. These events are never telegraphed to the audience but merely pondered on, offering multiple readings that change viewer perception. Synonymous with the film are the controversial Russian roulette scenes that Michael, Nick and Steve are forced to take part in. Roger Ebert has this to say at the time: “Anything you can believe about the game, about its deliberately random violence, about how it touches the sanity of men forced to play it, will apply to the war as a whole. It is a brilliant symbol because, in the context of this story, it makes any ideological statement about the war superfluous.”

Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is often labelled as a divisive film, having received numerous dressing downs from social commentators as well as established critics, but to attack it as part of an historical analysis is unfair. Its aim is not the Vietnam War but the experience that binds and destroys, in the the same way that Tolstoy’s War and Peace is not about the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a welcome pleasure to have The Deer Hunter back in cinemas again – courtesy of Park Circus – not least for once again confirming that the film’s ambiguity can be as forceful and powerful as the occasional scorn poured upon it. More relevant than its mordant copyists (such as Scott Cooper’s recent Out of the Furnace), here Cimino offers up an honest, earnest reflection on tumultuous times and epochal characters.

D.W. Mault