Tuesday, August 18, 2015

AFI Top 100: #53 "The Deer Hunter"

Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter (1978)

Kicking off a one-two punch of De Niro/post-Vietnam psychosis, we've come to #53 on our AFI Top 100 countdown, The Deer Hunter, in all of its unsettling glory. The Best Picture Oscar winner of 1978 features one of the decade's most star-studded casts, including a breakout role for young Meryl Streep, earning her her first Oscar nomination. It's infamous sequences and multiple story lines make this The Best Years of Our Lives for the disheartened, resentful Vietnam-era.

A group of friends working in a small Pennsylvania town steel-mill celebrate the marriage of one of their own the weekend before three of them deploy to the war in Vietnam. Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) endure the heinous acts committed on the battlefield while life at home continues without them. It's during a shoot-out in a small village that the three friends are apprehended by rogue Viet Cong militia, held captive in the jungle and forced to play Russian Roulette to the death. Time's running out for them to escape, and they may not leave with their sanity in tact.

First thing's first: there's about as much actual war in The Deer Hunter as there is in The Notebook. That translates to approximately one-ish scene, if that isn't a clear enough comparison. It surprises me every time I watch it, because for a movie touted as being about Vietnam, the last thing you'd expect is to skip right over the war itself. It really is about Russian Roulette as much as you remember. Probably more, actually. Michael is our stalwart warrior, who at the beginning of the movie exhibits a mental instability, a fraying around the edges that pops up during the first deer hunting sequence. It is this instability that keeps him grounded and rational throughout his trials at war. Unfortunately his friends, more playful and compassionate in life back home, don't fair as well under pressure. We're forced to watch as their minds come apart at the seams.

De Niro plays his role as Michael with guarded subtlety. His character arc isn't extreme like the others, particularly if we're looking at Walken's Nick. De Niro's whole performance is understated, and he carries himself, even during the film's most intense moments, with an air of calm. He never has to say aloud that he'll never be brokenwe can all see it.

This film is three hours long, but you'd never notice it. The story never stops moving, and it shifts to and from Vietnam, back to Pennsylvania and the loved ones still there. Director Michael Camino understood how to not only create, but maintain tension. He messes with our expectations, but nothing comes out of left field. All of the characters establish themselves very early on, even the men and women back home. Meryl Streep as Nick's conflicted girlfriend Linda is a total revelation. Has anything more obvious ever been stated? It's also her chemistry with De Niro, adding to the complicated dynamics, that allow the film to break from the tragedy and terror building up at its center. The naive, hopeful normalcy enduring at home never becomes frustrating or infuriating. It's too honest.

Overall, every performance is unrelentingly good. Even though Walken is, well... very 'Walken-esque' in his delivery and demeanor, and John Cavale couldn't not be a creepy weasel if he tried, everything just works. In the end, we're interested in everyone and everything, and we want to see it all turn out okay, somehow. The fantasy of the roulette scenes (in the fact that historically, there's no evidence anything like this was ever played in Vietnam) is tethered to the realities a callous war, and the poor men who jumped unknowingly to serve in it.

The Deer Hunter is hardly a movie anyone would choose to watch for fun. It's dark, trying and disturbing, and it never lets up. There are flaws here and there, mostly in the liberties it takes. But it's also beautiful and unique. The themes are simple ("it's all about one shot") and Cimino never gets distracted. A must-see, unforgettable film that will always make me a little sick to my stomach.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next time for #52 on the list, Taxi Driver — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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