As I livetweeted The Deer Hunter, I started to wonder: Could this film exist today? Would it even be made today? I wasn't wondering about the subject matter, and whether viewers would care about hard-working men who are shipped off to Vietnam. Nor was I thinking of an Iraq-based version. Rather, I wondered if the modern moviegoer would sit through all three hours of The Deer Hunter. I wondered if they would allow themselves to go on this slow-moving, but infinitely rewarding journey.
Times have definitely changed. With our easily distracted modern attention spans, few if any filmmakers dare to let a story slowly build. We don't have the patience to rest inside a scene, not only absorbing information that moves the plot forward, but simply experiencing the life of the characters we're watching. These days, the most we get is a plot that builds slowly to increase tension and pluck at our nerves. Not one that simply rests in the moment. Not one that takes 3 hours to tell its story slowly but surely. Not a war movie ready to linger on the happiness of a wedding and the easy-going nature of everyday life.
The Deer Hunter is a whopping 3 hours long, broken into three acts -- the wedding and pre-military hunt for deer, the trials and tribulations of fighting in Vietnam, and post-war life back home. Its length is not due to immense amounts of information needing to be revealed; a modern editor would surely cut this feature down to a crisp 2 hours. The length, instead, is due to Michael Cimino's desire to rest in the moment -- to pull the viewer into his character' environment. Interestingly, he doesn't choose to reveal too much as he does this. There are no long bouts of dialogue that pull the curtain back to reveal Michael (Robert De Niro), Steve (John Savage), and Nick's (Christopher Walken) thoughts and motivations. We get to know them like anyone else would, through their friendly banter and interpersonal attitudes. We understand them, yet consider them strangers with motivations we can't decipher -- much like life.
The fact that this juxtaposition between calm and fury, patience and mystery works so well is part craft, for sure, and part fortuitous filmmaking. You might recall that Cimino's follow-up was the notorious disaster Heaven's Gate -- a 5-hour western that killed his career. Perhaps The Deer Hunter thrived due to the luck of coming across the dangerous game at its core -- undoubtedly the heart-wrenching center of the film. Cimino had been penning the story of steelworkers who fight in Vietnam, and then incorporated Russian Roulette from a spec called The Man Who Came to Play (about a group who travels to Vegas to play the deadly game).
In fact, I can't imagine the film would have had the same impact without it -- not just because it outlined the horrors of war, but for how it challenged the bonds of friendship and the fight to survive. These men weren't war buddies. They knew each other their whole lives, making each moment in that watery prison and each moment surrounded by the betting Vietnamese all the more harrowing, as if their family was suffering, not just friends of circumstance. Furthermore, each had their role to play, allowing the scene to never become unstoppably Rambo-esque, but simply dire, desperate, and real. Michael, the leader, manages to hold it together. Steve, meanwhile, cannot take the pressure of the moment and desperately clings to his sanity. Nick, finally, seems to be able to survive, but you know that the softer aspects of his personality are battling with his sanity. While it looks like Steve will be the one to crack, it's Nick that's the most damaged by their ordeal -- a revelation that plays out slowly, not fully revealing itself until the last moments of the film.
If not for the first act, where we slowly get acquainted with the ties that bind them, the end wouldn't be so devastating. Seeing Nick still in Vietnam, track marks running up and down his arms as he plays Russian Roulette over and over again to send Steve money and feed his guilt -- it's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking because Nick has failed to heal the damage done by his imprisonment -- because Michael broke his promise and moved on -- because while Michael was once willing to give up Steve to save themselves, he'd rather play Russian Roulette again than lose Nick -- because somewhere deep inside, Michael knows that Nick won't be coming home -- because Nick, finally recognizing his old friend before him, is ready to die -- because while all this is going on, that simple and happy life back home continues to move forward.
Because Cimino dared to take things slowly, and ultimately end with life continuing as normal, The Deer Hunter is a film about life as much as it is about war. It doesn't need to manipulate with music and carefully edited scenes. It does so with real heart -- the nuances of each wildly talented actor, from moments of joy to moments of utter heartbreak -- and I don't think any of that would have thrived if each player wasn't given so much time to make it real.
- In his review, Roger Ebert wrote: "I do want to observe that the lyrics of "God Bless America" have never before seemed to me to contain such an infinity of possible meanings, some tragic, some unspeakably sad, some few still defiantly hopeful." The same could be said for the film itself. What meaning does The Deer Hunter hold for you? An opus of pacing and characterization? Something else?
- Speaking of pacing -- Do you agree with the power of Cimino's careful plotting, or should the film have been strictly edited into a shorter film?
- Considering the failure of Heaven's Gate, does The Deer Hunter's 5-Oscar success (plus 4 extra nods) boil down to Russian Roulette?
- The film inspired Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs to envision the Vietnam Memorial and make it a reality. Can that symbiosis between Hollywood and war vets exist today? Or has the gulf grown too wide and volatile?
- IMDb trivia states that in the original script, Nick returns home to Linda while Michael stays, sending money to Steven and dying at the Russian Roulette table. Would that alternative have worked?
Now it's time to get a little more modern and fantastical.
Next Week's Film: Donnie Darko | Add it to your Netflix queue
Once again, I will livetweet on Wednesday, 10 P.M. Eastern time. You can follow me at @MBartyzel, and join in on the discussion using both #cinemovieclub and #donniedarko.
Last Week's Film: The Graduate