The Deer Hunter

Monday, August 27, 2007

Anyone who says the opening to The Deer Hunter is too long or that it’s boring is, quite frankly, an idiot. The opening, aside from being an amazing piece of cinema, is what makes us care so deeply about the characters. If it were shorter it would lessen the impact of the final scenes.

The most important part of the beginning is to get a flavour of where these characters live, their home, because that’s what the film is really about. It’s not really about the Vietnam War. It’s about what happens when your home is taken away from you – the characters could be involved in any conflict.

And the opening scenes work tremendously well in painting a portrait of how and where these characters live. They’re ordinary, blue-collar guys, and like most of those guys they get drunk and take the piss out of each other. They’re also cocky and are reluctant to express their emotions. However, in one little moment, Nicky (Christopher Walken) tells Mike (Robert De Niro) how much he likes the trees in the mountains when they go hunting. He can’t express himself properly, either because he doesn’t want to lay himself bare or because he’s incapable of doing so, but you know that behind all the bullshit he loves the place where he lives and he loves the people around him.

But of course, Nicky expresses these sentiments more directly later on in a scene after the wedding. He tells Mike that he loves his hometown and that he doesn’t want to be left in Vietnam – if something goes wrong, he wants Mike to bring him back. Of course, these words are spoken in a drunken haze, but that’s the only way these characters can relate – as is the case with a lot of men, it is only alcohol that lowers the defences.

And there’s a beautiful scene after the wedding where all the guys retreat to a bar. They joke around and they drink, and then one of the characters begins playing the piano. Slowly you see each person in turn and you feel like they finally understand what might be about to happen. Before this they’re full of heroic delusions and toasts are made to the guys who are going to be fighting, but with the music the enormity of the situation seems to slowly dawn upon them. They don’t have the vocabulary to accurately voice their fears, but the music seems to do it for them.

Another criticism that’s levelled at The Deer Hunter is that there’s no evidence that prisoners of war were made to play Russian Roulette. Quite frankly, who cares? Whether you want to argue that the games are a metaphor for the randomness of war or whether they’re a microcosm of the Vietnam conflict, all that matters is that in a dramatic context, they work. And they work like gangbusters. Few scenes make me as angry or get me as worked up as those that happen in this film. With every game and with every person that’s killed, Cimino winds you up tighter. You’ve seen these guys get drunk, you’ve laughed at their jokes and now you’re watching them get killed.

One of the most upsetting moments in the film is when Steven (the character who gets married at the beginning) shoots himself in the head in a game with Mike. The poor kid cries as his captors laugh at him (his wound his non fatal) and Mike can only impotently say that he showed those bastards what he was made of.

But although some people moan that the Russian Roulette is exploitative or that it goes for cheap emotion, I think it’s a more dramatic way of showing the horrors of conflict. And at least it’s something different – at least Cimino doesn’t go for the standard war film clichés. And I guess you could argue that the scenes show the way that people and countries shoot themselves in the head by indulging in such pointless conflicts.

One of the scenes, though, that gets to me the most occurs in a Veteran’s hospital. Nicky, having survived the ordeal, looks down upon all the body bags and then has to suffer lots of pointless questions made by some bureaucrat. They’re simple questions, like ‘what’s your name?’ and ‘where do you come from?’, but after a while Nicky can no longer answer them. He’s reduced to tears. In light of all he’s been through the questions seem so pointless – his home has been taken away from him; after all he’s been through he can’t go back.

But although Nicky can’t go home, Mike does make the return trip. And of course, for him, everything has changed. And he can’t even face seeing his friends – they try and hold a welcome back party for him. But instead he drives by and heads for a cheap hotel. And here we have a wonderful little scene with Mike stuck in a lousy room. He’s constantly fidgeting, unable to get any rest, and from his wallet he takes a picture of Linda (Meryl Streep), the girl that both he and Nicky are in love with. You feel by looking at this picture Mike is trying to reclaim his home. He’s trying to get his old life back. But of course, it’s pointless. Those people he loves and who stayed at home don’t truly understand what he went through and those he fought and suffered with have been changed by the war – they’re no longer the same friends that he danced and got drunk with.

But it’s to Mike’s credit that despite everything he stays true to his promise. He tries to bring everyone home; he tries to put all the pieces back together. But as Steven says (now stuck in a wheelchair), he doesn’t fit anymore. And so therefore Mike’s mission to bring Nicky back is pointless – the man is too far gone. But at the same time, it’s essential. It’s essential for Mike and the rest of the community to have a definitive resolution. They need to be able to move on. And although Nicky may have lost sight of home, you feel like slowly Mike and Steve will reclaim what was once theirs.

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