Continuing our look at Robert De Niro films of the 1970s, we see the actor star in his second Best Picture film and unlike The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter saw him take the leading role.
Set over three acts; The Deer Hunter tells the story of a group of smalltown steel workers who go to war in Vietnam and are later unable to shake the horrors of the conflict following the fighting. De Niro plays the de facto leader of the group, Michael Vronsky, a strong silent man who loves to hunt deer but isn’t great with talking about his emotions. The first act sees Michael and his friends celebrate the impending wedding of their friend Steve before the pair journey to Vietnam alongside Steve’s best man Nick. The scenes before and during the wedding appear to be there to set up the relationships between the characters namely the fact that Michael has a crush on Nick’s girlfriend Linda. This almost hour-long act concludes with the characters going on the first of two infamous deer hunts. The second act is definitely the film’s most powerful; as we see the trio put in a Prisoner of War camp and forced into playing Russian Roulette. Though Michael engineers their escape, the resulting rescue sees Steve lose his legs and Nick being mentally scarred by their actions. Michael later returns home alone and can’t seem to fit into the life that he once had. He attempts to start a relationship with Linda but feels he must return to Saigon, if only to find out what happened to Nick.
The Deer Hunter is often held up as one of the best films of all time, and according to the Academy it was the best film released in 1978, but I have to say I was a little unimpressed. Firstly the positives, Vilmos Zsigmond’s brilliant cinematography which brought the entire film to life and put the viewer firmly in the middle of the action. Zsigmond was able to shoot everything to perfection whether it be an incredibly bloody scene in Vietnam or a simple bowling came back in America. The performances were incredibly involving throughout with De Niro underplaying his role as Michael. Unlike the characters he’s previously played; Michael really is a man of action and so De Niro really had to tone down his usually animated expressions. I feel that he pulled this off, even if it did mean he was outshone by several members of the supporting cast. Christopher Walken in particular was the stand-out here, and the only member of the cast to win an Oscar, as Steve who goes on a dark journey after his time in Vietnam. Walken was absolutely spellbinding in the final Russian Roulette scenes and he more than deserved his Best Supporting Actor award. Another performer who became a big name thanks to The Deer Hunter was Meryl Streep, who garnered her first of many Oscar nominations. As Linda, Streep really added an emotional core to the film as she sort of let us know how the war had affected those in America. The Deer Hunter sadly marked the end of the career of John Cazale, who died of cancer before the film was completed. In fact Cazale’s role of Stanley was almost re-cast before his real-life girlfriend Streep threatened to walk out if this was done. As he has done throughout all of the films we’ve seen him appear in, Cazale adds a nervous energy to the role of Stanley. Just like with Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter has a similarly memorable score and I do feel that composer Stanley Myers deserved at least a nomination for the film’s music.
To me the biggest negative about The Deer Hunter is that it feels a little over-indulgent, primarily due to its almost three-hour running time. I do feel that Michael Cimino really needed to edit down some of the scenes, especially those in the first act, as a lot of them don’t seem particularly necessary. While I understand the importance of letting us get to know the characters, some of the scenes at Stanley’s wedding added nothing to the overall story of the film. The film’s screenplay was similarly baggy and some of the dialogue felt a little clunky and uneven. The final scene in particular was a little too patriotic for my liking as we see the surviving characters spontaneously break out into a chorus of ‘God Bless America’. That’s not to say The Deer Hunter was a poor film, it just needed to have been cut down a little bit more as the pace was poor at best. The ironic thing is that a film that needed serious editing down actually won the Oscar for Best Editing.