Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter is possibly the most restrained epic I've ever seen. It tells a story about war and how it can destroy lives, and about love, and is a sweeping three hours long. But there are fewer than ten characters of any real significance, and for the most part the story is contained to a small blue collar town in Pennsylvania. None of this makes it bad, it's just interesting how they decided to allot the running time to the different aspects of the story. Vietnam is the crux of the plot and all of the things that affect the main characters, but the movie probably spends less than an hour total there.

So five friends work at a steel mill, and three of them are leaving for the war soon. One of them is getting married before they ship off, and except for the groom they're all going to go deer hunting one last time after the ceremony. A bearded Robert De Niro is the one who most loves the thrill of the hunt, obsessed with bringing down the deer with one shot, and he's also in love with Meryl Streep, who happens to be in a relationship with his best friend played by Christopher Walken. And that's really everything from the first part of the story, which takes up the first hour. It then cuts quickly to Vietnam, and it's an abrupt transition from people having a good time at a wedding and on a hunting trip to people getting shot and burned alive in a war-torn village. They're captured by the enemy, and then the film introduces its infamous element of Russian Roulette. It might not be a historically accurate depiction of what happened in the war, but that hardly matters when it provides so much great material for the story. The game is an apt metaphor for the pointless, random violence of war, and is a nice way to show that without throwing too much money into huge battles. It also provides from some thrillingly intense scenes of drama.

None of the friends are killed in the war, but they are all deeply affected by their experience, and they don't all make it back to Pennsylvania. The third act is about the post-war life, and focuses mostly on De Niro. All of the central performances are great, including John Cazale's final role as one of the friends who stayed behind, and Walken's, which won him an Oscar. De Niro really holds the end of the movie together though, and without him supporting it it might not have worked. It's a complicated story where nothing is easy or black and white, and as a depiction of what trauma can do to people and how it can wreck plans and affect people who didn't even go, it's a powerful piece of filmmaking. I didn't like everything about its choices in pacing and a few other things, but still definitely deserving of its status as a great film.

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