The Deer Hunter (1978)
Directed by Michael Cimino
Like Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, Cimino composed his masterpiece in parts––allegro, andante, and con moto––though in Cimino’s case the execution is not necessarily in that order. Both works use notes unfamiliar to the art form, yet The Deer Hunter’s visceral, bloody take on the Vietnam War, which begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral, is seamless. Cimino’s film is not anti- or pro-war; it’s the harrowing tale of a group of three friends from Pennsylvania (Robert De Niro, a career-best Christopher Walken, John Savage) who work in a steel mill and prepare to serve in Vietnam.
The first act, con moto, has sing-alongs, Russian dancing, and besotted bachelors who, after their friend gets hitched, set out into the wilderness for some good old fashioned hunting. These opening scenes absorb us into the characters’ lives. We are guests at the celebration; we are urging De Niro to give John Cazale (in his last film role before his untimely death) boots so he can go hunting, too, but then, suddenly Vietnam is paramount. The allegro emerges. The friends are taken prisoner and forced to play Russian roulette, as a taunting captor looks on, betting his sodden dollars on who will blow their brains out.
The game of Russian roulette becomes a key symbol—a random game inflicting random violence and altering sanity—for the war itself. De Niro’s Mike gets his friends through the prison camp, though by the time they’re discharged, they’re all separated and processing their horrific experiences differently. In the third act, Mike returns home encompassed by an unadulterated silence, andante. Though he experiences desire—foremost, sexually—he seems to admonish any other emotion; he rebuffs his hometown heroism and is lost amid vicious memories.
Haunted by a naive promise he made to Walken’s character, Nick, on the moonlit evening before they shipped off, Mike is overcome with loss and goes back to Vietnam to bid a disturbing, solemn goodbye to a friend whose life, like his, is destroyed over the course of the film; the unspeakably sad lives of these young men are forever toiled, but they still sing God Bless America with dignity and respect. Samantha Vacca (September 30, 3pm, 7:30pm; October 2, 6:30pm at BAM’s Cimino series)