Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, John Cazale
Plot: Three friends bravely go off to war, but after spending time in a traumatic POW camp, they return home, shells of their former selves.
It always makes me chuckle that the Deerhunter is remembered as one of the greatest war films, depicting Vietnam, yet it features very little of the actual war. Deerhunter is more than a war film, it is a character study of the men who went to ‘Nam, seeking glory and returned broken.
The film’s opening is important to the story, yet rather dull. In order to get on board with these characters, we need to understand them before the war, so Cimino directs the first hour of his movie with these three blokes from Pittsburgh, lowly steel-workers, working up the courage to enlist. One of them gets married, while the other two celebrate, get drunk and have a good time. In fairness, they are easy to like, mainly due to the fact that it is impossible to not like Robert De Niro in anything that he does. However, as you settle down to watch this much-talked about classic, the first word on your mind will probably be dull. We side with these characters fairly quickly and while it is important to establish their connection with Meryl Streep early on, an argument could be made that an hour was not needed and the lengthy opening is the main thing that stops the Deerhunter from being as excellent as it could have been. This film is a great piece of cinema, but it does trip over its own feet in the starting line.
Then, we get to the actual war, and the film suddenly earns the status of classic in a heartbeat. The war, again, plays a little part in the movie, as it is the outside element of the war that Cimino wishes to discuss. However, this means that the director needs to get across the horror and brutality of the Vietnam War in as quick a way as possible. And boy, does he do that? The scene at the POW camp, where the lead heroes are forced to play Russian Roulette, while their captors place bets on them, is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema ever. If Deerhunter becomes too much of a drag for you, please at the very least, watch this scene, because even without context, it is a cinematic masterpiece. It is the intensity of the moment and the fear you share for those characters. It captures everything grim about the Vietnam War that Cimino needs to portray in a mere twenty minutes or so. After a dull first hour to the movie, this moment grabs you by the scruff of the neck and slaps you back into the film, shocking and mesmerising all at the same time. This section of the film deserves all the praise I can give it, because it never gets any less amazing when I subject myself to it.
When we get out of the war and back to Pennsylvania, the film slows right down to a crawl again, but this is the kind of slow I don’t mind. Why? Well, it is all meaningful, and it is able to focus on things that I want to focus on. Robert De Niro comes home from the war and cannot help but hide from his own homecoming party, as he cannot bear the thought of civilian life. We take this confident steelworker from the start, full of laughter and bravado, see him corrupted by the roulette scene mentioned above and what is left is a hollow shell of the original character. De Niro is incredible here, jumping from various points in this man’s life, yet it never feels disconnected, which is harder to act than it looks. And his character gets off lightly, compared to Savage and Walken. As the film comes to an unpredictable and heart-breaking end, we are now unable to put this film away, too emotionally invested in their arcs to abandon them in their darkest hour. The final few frames are just as horrifically brutal as the war scenes.
However, none of Cimino’s work would have been possible, if it wasn’t for the cast. This will be remembered as one of De Niro’s best, as he plays his usual strand of good guy, corrupted by a dark life. De Niro has the intensity needed here and whenever he is on-screen, we are totally captivated in his movements, dialogue and story. However, while in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, the show was entirely about him, Deerhunter allows for some of the supporting cast to shine. This is one of Walken’s finer works, and while I prefer him as a manically evil villain, it was nice to see him before he was typecast as that figure. You could tell the actor poured his heart and soul into this movie. John Cazale makes the most of a small role, especially after the war, when he tries to impress DeNiro with his gun. However, the actor that is always overlooked here, yet is just as brilliant as her male co-stars is Meryl Streep. These days we know Streep as a powerhouse in the acting field, but it is refreshing to see her as a Hollywood starlet. God, is she beautiful? In all honesty, her character is little more than a narrative device to connect the male leads, but she adds depth to the role, showing that even at that early age, she was an actor to be reckoned with.
Final Verdict: The slow start lets it down, but when Deerhunter gets to full momentum, it earns every compliment ever showered upon it. A true classic.