‘The Deer Hunter’ Review: “One Shot”

Posted in The Screening Room by - February 24, 2016

This month has hands down been, despite how short a time I’ve been on staff, my favorite month of reviewing movies. Say what you will about the Oscars’ bias towards melodrama and popularity, it would be ignorant (and almost akin to the Academy’s alleged and recent bigotry) to say that the movies across the decades awarded these golden statues were devoid of any artistic merit.  Though there will always be those questionable and forgettable choices, we should never forget the few moments the Academy has rightfully honored some of the greatest talents in Hollywood.

This week, I had the pleasure of reviewing what is quite honestly one of the best films I’ve seen in a while, The Deer Hunter. Winner of 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, this cinematic giant is commanded by only the best of talents. Featuring Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Cazale and John Savage in some of their greatest performances, The Deer Hunter holds its own against the industry’s greatest achievements. Though as with any good review, let me support my strongly opinionated argument.

The film opens with a shot of a small town as viewed underneath a highway overpass and then shows us the inside of a steel factory. A few men dressed in protective gear battle against molten rock and fire, simply doing their job accompanied only by their coworkers and the shattering sounds of machinery and flying sparks. The film is slow with its opening, taking its time to show the audience just how these everyday people make a living and spend time together as friends. For a few moments, we watch a wedding, then the celebration. Filled with alcohol and dancing, we can’t help but be drawn into the lives of the characters. We see the chemistry among these people who we were introduced only twenty minutes earlier and fall in love with them immediately. 

After what seems like a relatively short time in retrospect, the first act is over. Then it’s explosions and fire in the midst of the Vietnam war. We see three of these same friends (DeNiro, Savage, and Walken) captured as POW’s and watch the film’s psychologically traumatizing Russian roulette scene. In an act of quick-thinking Michael (DeNiro) manages to save his friends and escapes from the prison camp. As we’re left to catch our breaths the movie doesn’t stop, we see all three men escape and eventually reach the end of their service in Vietnam. We’re left wondering what happens to Steven (Savage) and see Nick (Walken) consumed by the gambling underbelly of Saigon. A battered and broken DeNiro returns home to his small town as we close the second act.

As I said earlier, the film is domineered by amazing talent, because of this, however, I was hesitant to watch the movie. I thought “casts filled to the brim with big name actors generally tend to overshadow one another.” Confidently, I can say that’s not the case with The Deer Hunter. Due in part, perhaps to its massive run time or its masterful writing, The Deer Hunter manages to showcase the moral conflicts of just about every actor equally. Believe it or not, there’s little left to the imagination when it comes to a character’s moral obstacles. In regards to the actual talent, however, and perhaps this simply reflects poorly on my critiquing skills, I for one say it’s something to be experienced. If my stance so far hasn’t been abundantly clear I’ll take now to clarify, this movie is an artistic achievement and just as people can empathize with music or visual art, there is something to be felt in the acting of this movie, something insurmountably difficult to describe.

However, for all its cinematic genius there are moments in this film that I feel could be condensed or taken differently. DeNiro’s character is often a little too morally ambiguous for my tastes and the nature of Steven’s marriage could have benefited from some more exposition. Little things in every movie will stick out as flaws because we see them as such. But the truth is these things are simply insignificant droplets in the ocean that is this film. They pale in comparison to the rest of the film and become minor off-notes in the grand orchestration. There is something to be said for its immense runtime, yes, but as a war epic, character piece and psychological breakdown of such elaborate themes, it seems justified at just over 3 hours.

This film is draining. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically, this movie has an almost palpable effect on the mind. I walked out of this movie exhausted, though again it could be the fact that I watched it all in a straight three hours, I felt it was equally because of how thematically immense this movie was. It began as a celebration of brotherhood and marriage and ended with tragedy and a funeral. And along the way we, the audience, were mercilessly and unequivocally thrust into the face of torment and made to watch as it tore apart the lives of these regular hardworking people.

Better critics than I have tried to dissect what The Deer Hunter is truly about and though it may seem fruitless I’d also like to try my hand. The Deer Hunter is about many things, it’s about the Vietnam War, the thrill of near-death experiences, the understatement of war trauma. The Deer Hunter is about every single war, death and psychological horror you can think of and at the same time, it can be none of it. For all its ambiguity and moral objectivity, this movie can simply be nothing more than a tale of friends who, like so many families, were ripped apart by war.

The truth is, The Deer Hunter is like any great painting, it is what you see and believe it to be. And in my opinion, any piece of art that can so effectively put its message in the hands of its beholder is one worth remembering.

Final Verdict: Watch It

This post was written by

When not drowning in school work or ignoring social obligations he enjoys watching movies on just about anything. Currently making his way through the cinema classics he hopes to one day write a novel, but he’ll probably end up playing The Witcher 3 instead.

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