Worth A Look: 22.14%
Pretty Bad: 10%
Total Crap: 1.43%
5 reviews, 110 user ratings
|Deer Hunter, The
by David Hollands
The Deer Hunter won five Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. While the direction of infamous filmmaker Michael Cimino is commendable and the cinematography of genius artist Vilmos Zsigmond is amazing, the film as a whole does not in the least justify the Academy’s choice. If anything, this perhaps reveals that the Academy gives awards based solely on a film’s subject matter rather than if the story it tells incorporating said subject matter is a good one. This should come as a surprise only to someone who’s been living on Pluto all his or her life.The film concerns three steelworkers in Pennsylvania, Michael, Nick, and Steven, who leave behind their loved ones and head off to fight in the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly they find that war in general is pretty darn dehumanizing, both physically and mentally. Michael returns home with a ruined soul, Steven returns home with ruined and subsequently amputated legs, and Nick does not return home at all. The war, you see, has completely screwed him up (big surprise) and he has chosen to remain in Vietnam competing in Russian Roulette tournaments.
"Hunting for a better film."
There’s a pretty compelling story buried somewhere in what I have described above. Unfortunately while the story is sound, the plot leaves quite a bit to be desired. This film, to be honest, is a prime example of incredibly awful storytelling. First, there’s some overly obvious foreshadowing and symbolism that comes off more as a screenwriter trying way too hard to impress his Creative Writing teacher than anything else. In the film, the three main characters and their friends ritualistically go hunting. Michael believes that one may only use one shot to take down a deer, and thus loads his rifle with only one bullet. This mirrors a later sequence in the film in which Michael and Nick, now prisoners in a camp in Vietnam, are forced to play games of Russian Roulette while the guards bet on who will survive. Michael and Nick are now the deer, you see. Michael’s insistence on taking down a deer with only one bullet does not serve any other purpose except for that comparison to be made clear. It’s complete Screenwriting 101 when a simple glance at the film’s TITLE would have easily clued an audience member into this. It doesn’t quite matter whether or not the characters are being compared to hunted deer in any case, since the comparison really didn’t even need to exist for the situation to be emotionally affecting. The obvious attempt at meaning here calls one’s attention to the film itself and ruins a chance for the audience to be properly sutured in.
There is another example of symbolic foreshadowing that is handled in an extremely clumsy fashion. Before heading off to Vietnam, Steven is married to Angela. A tradition in a Russian Catholic wedding ceremony, according to the film, is that the bride and groom drink wine from two small glasses that are attached. If not a single drop is spilled the couple will have good luck their entire lives. As if Steven heading to Vietnam after just having been married was not enough, the filmmakers hammer their overdone foreshadowing point home to have a few unseen drops fall onto Angela’s white wedding dress. Um, that’s quite…clever. I wonder why I should even watch the rest of the movie now since I already know Steven’s pretty much doomed from this moment on. That moment also makes me feel like the filmmakers think I’m a complete fool. They might as well have just gone all the way over the edge and cut to a shot of a mouse eating a falcon or two horses devouring each other if they honestly thought an audience member would be too stupid or clueless to know that Steven’s pretty much screwed after the wedding. I mean, come on – he’s a secondary character who’s just been married and soon on his way to Vietnam. Brain surgery? I think not.
Perhaps the following was the filmmakers’ attempt at irony: Nick, who tells Michael soon after the wedding in a pseudo-poignant scene that he loves Pennsylvania the most, is the one to end up as a Russian Roulette champion with no thoughts devoted to returning. That’s…brilliant…I suppose. Actually no, and here’s why: irony is only irony when it’s unexpected. Anyone who could not predict that Nick’s character would end up in serious hot water just by being Michael’s friend in the story perhaps deserves to foolishly call this film a masterpiece. It’s a cliché as old as storytelling itself, and the plot unfolding before our eyes does nothing to make us effortlessly glide over the fact that it’s a cliché. Perhaps this whole aspect of the story could have been affecting in some way had it not been such a forced scene in the plot. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the filmmakers seem to be drowning in their own perceived brilliance at being able to impress High School Creative Writing teachers. High School ended a long time ago, and The Deer Hunter is in the real world now – there’s no room for horrible irony or clumsy foreshadowing, just plain good storytelling. The scene is well acted, don’t get me wrong, but the writing is so poor as to almost completely negate that.
Forced irony, foreshadowing, and atrocious symbolism are only the beginning. The storytelling here is incredibly bad. Those saying it was meant to be that way, that its reason for existing was only to provide snapshots of the effects of the Vietnam War, or war in general, on individuals may defend it. This doesn’t defend the film at all unfortunately, since it’s an argument akin to the old “The Dog Ate my Homework” excuse. The wedding sequence and the first deer hunting trip that open the film are about forty-five minutes in length. That’s way too long. An argument may be made here as well: we’re meant to settle in with the characters so that we may have sympathy and possibly even empathy for them when they finally arrive in Vietnam. Sadly, the characters are so clichéd that any extraneous time spent with them only makes us even more bored and makes the cliché appear even more evident. The characters we must spend time with at this point in the story aren’t beginning to develop yet, so we must sadly wait around twiddling our thumbs hoping this will all pay off in some way. It really doesn’t, since the portion of the story in which Michael returns home from Vietnam is handled in a very blasé manner, as if the filmmakers just stopped caring after the wedding and Vietnam scenes.
Once the plot finally takes us into Vietnam, we’re thrown completely off by the lack of development of Vietnam as a location. We see nothing of Michael, Nick, and Steven arriving in Vietnam, getting used to the location, or even getting used to being soldiers in the jungle. We’re only shown them after this has all occurred in story time, and we’re dropped in directly after a conflict has already taken place. Michael is wounded, burns a Viet Cong soldier to death, and then Nick arrives via helicopter. There’s absolutely no audience involvement here at all, since we have no idea where the characters are or how they arrived there. They’re just…there…and we’re expected to immediately imagine everything that has happened in the interim. I’m sorry, but that’s an unbelievably lazy story device, especially in a drama that’s meant to shed light on the human condition. Some may claim that this was done to avoid cliché. I agree, though there are times when a filmmaker should risk having a clichéd act, scene, or moment if it serves the overall film. By choosing to avoid cliché here, the audience is brought up short.
If the above weren’t bad enough however, guess what comes after this bizarre leap in time and location. Basically, Michael, Nick, and Steven are suddenly in a small prison camp. They’ve been captured and are among soldiers who are being forced to partake in Russian Roulette competitions. We are never shown their capture, nor them adapting or failing to adapt to their situation. They’re simply right there, already emotionally fragile. Too bad the audience wasn’t allowed to witness their capture or their breakdown, since it would have really helped us be more sympathetic to them and their situation. Characterization is key when it comes to sympathy – if a story is lacking it, chances are the only thing you’ll really be able to muster is a bit of empathy. You probably won’t care about the characters in the situation however, and that sadly makes the scene much less powerful than it could have been. The scene itself is well-acted, well shot, and well directed – the audience simply won’t care because we’re too disorientated by the sudden jump in time and location (and this coming directly after a previous misguided jump). That’s a lethal combination: disorientation and a lack of sympathy, especially when the scene that’s missing these traits is one in which characters are forced to gamble with their lives.
The Vietnam scenes in general are undersold. Again, the argument in the film’s favour could be that Vietnam was not the point – that the effect on the men both at home and still abroad as a result of war was the overall point of the film. First, that’s a pretty standard point to make, that war is Hell and dehumanizing. Saying that to someone will mostly cause him or her to give you a response of “Duh” and move on. Thus, The Deer Hunter has a pretty huge task ahead of it in making this tired topic interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with it. Still, seeing tired old “War is Hell” clichés both with characters engaged in conflict and with the effects on them when returning home makes it pretty hard to view it in a positive light. Because the dramatics of the film are pretty limp, it’s hard to see this topic as anything except old news. If the film had actually been affecting, it would have simply been another movie to painfully allow the audience to realize and agree with its thesis, and would have been all the better for it. In The Deer Hunter, because Vietnam is hardly even a part of the film beyond us seeing what cities look like after major battles have already taken place, we’re brought up completely short. We have no idea of the suffering the main characters have experienced beyond an already distanced Russian Roulette sequence as a result of bad storytelling, so even affecting scenes such as Nick emotionally breaking down in a hospital have no real grounding to make us truly sympathize with his character and his situation. Imagination is a powerful thing – sometimes, however, an audience does need something beyond being asked to completely imagine prior events that seem to be affecting the characters so much. More of Vietnam was absolutely key to this story. Automatically giving the film a pass just because it chose to focus on something else is acknowledging a love of flimsy filmmaking, for choices, as we all know, can be both negative and positive. The filmmakers’ choice to focus only on the characters’ reactions and hardly any of the actions leading to said reactions makes it incredibly hard to be a sympathetic audience member.
Michael’s return home, besides a pretty good scene involving him reencountering a now legless Steven in a hospital, is problematic because it is so predictable. We know perfectly well that Michael will now be emotionally aloof as a result of his experiences. This has been the subject of countless fiction dating far back in time, and nothing really new is revealed to the audience here. Predictably, his friends’ personalities now bother him to the point where he wouldn’t mind playing a game of Russian Roulette with them (one unbelievably inept moment has Michael reacting violently to his friend Stan by placing one bullet in the chamber of Stan’s gun and testing fate with Stan’s head…and then there’s absolutely no repercussion…at ALL! The story is just business as usual, and you’d be absolutely convinced that it never even happened). He becomes romantically involved with Linda, Nick’s girlfriend to whom Nick had proposed marriage before leaving for Vietnam. Again, nothing really comes out of this except a demonstration of how aloof Michael’s become. Because all this stuff is so standard, and also because the film has set itself up as an incredibly revealing product (its indulgent three-hour length is a clear indication of this), Michael’s story once he returns home is an incredible bore to sit through. There isn’t a single affecting or revealing scene to be found anywhere in it. Hell, Bob Clark’s 1974 vampire zombie film Deathdream had more affecting and revealing scenes than this substandard piece of crap…and in less than half the running time too!
After this segment in the film, Michael returns to Vietnam in an attempt to locate Nick in another one of those jumps in time and location. The transition is so poor, that one could think that a flashback was occurring until one sees that the story is in fact progressing. Plus, all the plot threads established in the previous act are just left hanging. What was Linda’s reaction to Michael wanting to take off for Vietnam again? What was the reaction of his friends? These questions are not answered, so one is left wondering why he or she even had to witness the previous boring-as-Hell act if nothing substantial was even going to come of it. Besides, the jump to Vietnam reminds one of other terrible films in which characters just can’t seem to stop going back and forth between locations too quickly in screen time. Basically, once we’re just starting to get used to Vietnam, we’re suddenly back in Pennsylvania with Michael. Once we’ve become thoroughly bored yet somewhat hopeful that everything could turn out okay, off we go back to Vietnam. This story plays out, really, like a bad children’s adventure yarn.
Here is where we get into an area involving the thing I hate most in completely serious films: contrivance. Oh my, there’s a ton of it here. Get this: when Nick leaves the hospital and wanders the streets of Saigon, he encounters a Frenchmen who, for no real reason, decides to bring him into a secret Russian Roulette tournament in which contestants gamble with their lives in order to win money for themselves and others. My goodness, first he’s forced into the game when prisoners make his fellow soldiers do it, and then he just happens to run into a Frenchmen who brings him right into the heart of a similar game. Come on, that’s pure Screenwriting 101 there. It doesn’t even make sense. And because the film is set completely in the real world, such a contrivance only sticks out farther. It doesn’t end there though. Michael, for a reason completely unexplained, is a spectator of this very same tournament. He sees Nick there, and tries to catch up to him only to lose him in the crowd. What the Hell was he even doing there?
When Michael later returns to Vietnam to find Nick, he discovers that he has become the Russian Roulette tournament champion. Yeah, I know how that sounds. After a pseudo-emotional exchange in which Nick realizes his life has gone to Hell, he shoots himself right in front of Michael. Wow, now that’s really pushing it. So basically, the screenwriter conveniently has Nick survive right up until the moment when Michael must witness his death. Were you paying attention to the teacher when probability was being taught in Math class? By all laws we know of, such a thing is just about impossible. Because of its near impossibility and improbability, it sticks out completely as a contrivance. In the real world where the story of The Deer Hunter takes place, does it not seem more realistic, let alone even more dramatically sound, that Michael would return to find Nick already dead? Because this nosedive in the screenplay calls blatant attention to itself, the audience cannot even be bothered to have an emotional investment in the scene. The attempt at pathos ends up falling absolutely flat as a result.
End Spoiler Warning
What ultimately saves the film from being a complete waste is good direction, amazing cinematography, and terrific performances. Michael Cimino, despite being one of the worst storytellers in this world, has always been really gifted when it comes to visuals. What he offers up for us here is commendable. Unfortunately, most of the direction is plagued by Cimino’s desire to make the film appear larger than life. The visuals are pretty, no question, but that comes at the expense of the characters within these visuals. The camera is often placed in a position meant more to produce a nice picture than to help the audience connect with a certain character onscreen. That being said, the scenery that is offered up here is gorgeous to behold. When Michael and his friends are deer hunting, the mountain regions in the background look glorious on camera, despite the fact that they would be best suited in a sword and sandals epic. A botched helicopter rescue sequence has such beautiful visuals that it sadly almost makes one forget that characters are in danger within the scene. There is one really great moment (that’s ALMOST spoiled by a really bad nurse extra, but I’ll let that slide) that is perfectly captured however. It’s not the first Russian Roulette sequence, which actually has some bizarrely distracting screen direction problems. What I’m actually referring to is one moment in the film in which Cimino actually seemed to care about the characters more than the visuals. Basically, it’s when Nick breaks down in the hospital. It’s a two-shot, with Nick on the left, the doctor on the right, and the horrible nurse extra in the background. It’s a beautiful composition, and with a surprising and previously invisible instinct for dramatic moments, Cimino allows the moment to play out as long as it needs to…no more and no less. It’s something fleetingly beautiful stuck in a three-hour long mudslide.
The cinematography, courtesy of the always-reliable Vilmos Zsigmond, is amazing. The lighting completely enhances just about every single scene in the film, and makes them all almost come off the screen. The primary visual motifs here are light and dark (standard yes…but it’s a very beautiful looking standard). Scenes often seem to have only one possible light source, giving the film a very realistic appearance. One scene in which Nick almost has sex with a stripper is lit directly from above by a swinging light. The resulting image is just breathtaking. Another example of perfect lighting occurs during the first Russian Roulette sequence. Even though the scene takes place in the middle of the day, Zsigmond is still able to make it appear as if the light is struggling to make it through an invisible shield made up entirely of darkness. It definitely helps the scene pack a slight punch. It’s primarily because of Zsigmond’s fantastic work that The Deer Hunter merits the extra star.
The editing by Peter Zinner is, for an Academy Award winning job, pretty substandard. While editing within scenes is average and passable, the editing of the overall film leaves a lot to be desired. So many scenes could have been cut out of this film without it suffering a bit. Perhaps Zinner should have started trying to trim down that darn wedding sequence and should have actually tried to make something of an engaging story out of the mess of footage he must have had. And there’s another horrible choice he makes (perhaps he’s solely responsible for this, or perhaps it was Cimino’s brilliant idea…either way, it falls under editing). At various moments in the film, Zinner splices in stock footage from the actual Vietnam War that in no way combines with the footage shot for the film. The scene in which Nick rescues Michael when Nick and others descend from helicopters is a prime example. Most of the footage of the soldiers exiting the helicopters looks like it was taken from a fifth generation duplicate of actual Deer Hunter film footage. It looks horrible, and there doesn’t seem to have been any attempt to clean it up. Another moment such as this occurs when Michael has returned to Vietnam. There is a shot of a helicopter landing shot against the sky that looks like it was dragged across a floor for a couple of hours and then left to melt under a heat lamp. How these obvious and horrible stock footage shots made it into the film is anybody’s guess.
I thought of nothing but cheese when listening to Stanley Myers’ score. It’s not terrible, but it’s definitely not great. Often, the music will likely seem inappropriate when playing under any scene. I’ll highlight one example: when Michael and his friends are deer hunting for the first time, choral music (poorly recorded choral music to boot) attempts to turn the situation into some kind of holy crusade. I hate to break it to Myers, but it’s DEER HUNTING! There’s absolutely nothing holy or sacred about DEER HUNTING! If you want a good laugh, simply watch that scene and wonder what Myers could have possibly been thinking. On the bright side, the sound design is good. Effects sound realistic, hardly seeming like they were recorded in a studio. There is a slight problem though: dialogue, at times, is hard to understand. The sound effects do sometimes have a tendency to overpower the dialogue. Either that, or dialogue is mixed in far too quietly during calmer scenes.
The performances in The Deer Hunter are all very good given what the actors had to work with. Robert De Niro is perfectly acceptable as Michael. He conveys his emotions very effectively, and it’s just a shame that the script didn’t give him something better to work with. Christopher Walken is excellent, however, as Nick. He definitely transcends the poor screenwriting to deliver a few moments that come extremely close to being genuinely affecting. The aforementioned scene in which he breaks down at the hospital is pretty much an instruction manual for constructing a performance that feels lived in and not just like it’s an actor playing a part. Walken definitely deserved the award for his superb job here. In the supporting roles, John Savage is mildly good as Steven. The scenes in which he must demonstrate pain are fairly believable. Finally, Meryl Streep is as good as can be expected given the role she must work with. It’s a passable performance. There is one scene, though, that is atrociously acted by Streep. Linda has an alcoholic (at least, that’s what it seemed to be) father who hits her in one scene. Perhaps Streep shouldn’t be blamed entirely for her rather poor reaction to the situation, since the direction at that moment is pretty bad. All in all, there’s one excellent performance here surrounded by work best described as the best possible given the circumstances.The Deer Hunter, while having won an award for Best Picture, is ultimately a rather flaccid film containing a story that is told very poorly. My greatest regret after having seen the film, however, is not that I’ve wasted my time. Rather, it’s that I saw the seeds of a potentially fantastic movie hiding deep within the body of this film. Nick’s story is ultimately the most interesting and the most affecting part of The Deer Hunter. It’s a shame that it was also the part of the film that was explored the least.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=1366&reviewer=355
originally posted: 02/13/07 11:00:20