The Deer Hunter, screening this weekend at The Belcourt, has undergone numerous critical reconsiderations over the years. Looking at the film today, what is most striking is its craftsmanship. An epic canvas detailed with piercing intimacy, Michael Cimino's 1978 Best Picture winner is the tale of three Russian-American steelworkers whose lives are irrevocably changed after they are sent to fight the Vietnam War in 1967.
Among the three principals, Mike (Robert De Niro) is the alpha male. Steven (John Savage) is seemingly the least mature, while Nick (Christopher Walken) is the most introspective. His sensitivity is, of course, ugly foreshadowing for his fate in Saigon. The film is divided quite clearly into three acts, and only the middle section and the second half of the third act take place "in country." Cimino is just as interested in depicting the American atmosphere upon which the war insidiously intruded, and the shattered lives it left in its wake.
Seen today, the movie is most affecting in the Pennsylvania segments, especially the opening hourlong immersion in rituals of bonding, boozing and betrothal. Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond capture the steel mills and rusty trailers through dead winter trees, with a mobile camera that practically renders the landscape in 3D. Less convincing is the final act, in which Mike, already returned from the war, is somehow allowed to go back to search for Nick right as Saigon is falling to the North Vietnamese.
Has Cimino's vision of the war aged well? The depiction of savage Viet Cong forcing POWs to play Russian roulette is an unreconstructed image from the height of the American involvement, when barbaric tales of Communist fanaticism superseded any possible attempt at humanizing the enemy. Yet even then, the film is unique in its choice to depict the Vietnam War in what amounts to private, face-to-face violence among men.
As The Deer Hunter continues, however, we find that Cimino intends Russian roulette to be a governing metaphor for virtually all human relations. This ultimately undercuts his purpose, since it means that the extensive carnage we witness in the film's Vietnam sequences may itself be somehow abstract or metaphorical. The Deer Hunter is a fascinating document from the Vietnam era's utter confusion about its own meaning, America's true heart of darkness.