The Deer Hunter is a sad, sombre film, which depicts how the Vietnam War forever changed the lives of three soldiers and their small, blue collar town.
Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are three Clairton, Pennsylvania steel workers of Russian orthodox ancestry, who are days away from joining the war in Vietnam.
Celebrating their final pre-war days with the wedding of Steven to his pregnant bride Angela (Rutanya Alda), and the subsequent deer hunting ritual with their best friends Slosh (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), the three men leave as enthusiastic volunteers, yet return forever changed by the hell of war.
Despite its three hour running time, and the distressing and often confrontational subject manner, Director Michael Cimino has created an engrossing movie experience.
The transitions from Russian wedding (the most extravagant since Carlo Rizzi married Connie Corleone in The Godfather), to the tranquil scenery of the mountains of Mount Baker, Washington (where the excellent cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond shines) and the hell on earth of Vietnam, flow easily.
The Vietnam sequences, in particular, feature some truly horrific imagery, the most famous involving American POW's used in games of Russian roulette, with the Vietcong betting on who will blow their head off first. These scenes are tense, violent, disturbing, were extremely controversial upon release, and feature De Niro at his unchained best.
That those scenes are purely fictional is beside the point: they are a vital part of the film, and standout as a fine lesson in affective film making, that had (and still have) viewers on the edge of their seats.
Complementing Cimino’s direction are the standout performances by its talented cast.
As the introverted and quirky Michael, De Niro gives his best performance outside of Raging Bull
As always with De Niro, it's the small things that lead to a greater whole. Whether it is a shift of his head or a look in his eyes, he brings much sorrow, anguish and stern authority to a very complex character who finds it hard to articulate his feelings, more often than not coming up with enigmatic, short doses of philosophy (such as the infamous "This is this!" line given to John Cazale's character 'Stosh').
Christopher Walken chips in with an intensely tragic performance that showcases a vulnerability hardly shown in his body of work. And Meryl Streep is simply radiant as the lovelorn Linda, exuding a pure charm and elegance which was apparent so early in her career, her scenes with DeNiro exuding a sense of chemistry and realism that not many can muster.
The rest of the cast are also excellent. John Savage gives a heartbreaking performance, while the marvellous John Cazale willed himself through crippling bone cancer to play the egotistical "Stosh", doing a great job in the process. He would die shortly after the films completion.
If The Deer Hunter were to be remembered as a tribute to Cazale’s underappreciated talent, and indeed the talents of his cast mates and their director, then it would be a special film indeed. Yet The Deer Hunter is more than a display of fine talent at the peak of their powers: there is a power in its precision that will haunt many a soul upon completion.