Universal // 1978 // 182 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 6th, 2012
One of the most important and powerful films of all time!
"I feel a lot of distance, and I feel far away."
The year is 1968, and the place is Clairton, Pennsylvania. Michael (Robert De Niro, Cape Fear), Nick (Christopher Walken, Pennies From Heaven) and Steven (John Savage, The Thin Red Line) are steel mill workers preparing to go to war in Vietnam. Along with their buddies Stanley (John Cazale, The Godfather), John (George Dzundza, Crimson Tide) and Alex (Chuck Aspegren), the guys celebrate Steven's wedding and go on a last-minute deer hunting expedition.
Flash-forward to Vietnam, where we find Michael, Nick and Steven being held captive by brutal Vietnamese soldiers. They're eventually able to escape, but not before enduring a series of harsh physical and psychological torments.
The Deer Hunter takes an in-depth look at the lives of these men and examines the manner in which they change before, during and after the war.
I've long regarded The Deer Hunter as one of the greatest films made about the Vietnam war. Re-visiting for the first time in a few years, I was surprised to make a handful of new discoveries. First, I finally recognized that The Deer Hunter was much less about Vietnam than about war in general. Second, I realized that the film was vastly more flawed than I had remembered. Third, I was surprised to discover that the film's emotional impact wasn't dampened a bit by my acknowledgment of those flaws.
When the movie was released in 1978, it seemed ahead of its time in its naturalistic depiction of ordinary men being forced to cope with brutal warfare. Today, it seems dated in its relentless insistence on indulging the sort of improvisatory method acting which was prominent during the era. This approach to the material leads to a film containing both electrifying unscripted moments (such as the scene in which Walken spits in De Niro's face) and material which meanders endlessly (a lot of the wedding scene, for instance).
My initial impression of the film's famously lengthy wedding sequence was that it was a necessary immersion into the lives and emotions of the characters. It permitted us to connect with them as human beings in a profound way, and made the impact of the violent Vietnam material all the more shocking. This time around, it seemed that a large portion of the wedding material was simply filler. The scene easily could have been cut in half (or even more dramatically) without anything being lost. In fact, the scene which really leaves an impression in the way it imbues the characters with humanity is a scene which comes just before the wedding. All the guys have gathered at the bar. They're drinking, playing pool and doing their best to avoid thinking about the bleakness of the future. Suddenly, "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" appears on the radio. One or two of the guys tentatively sing along, and before long the whole group is singing along with lusty enthusiasm. It's a beautiful moment that leaves a lasting impression (and one which also contrasts nicely to the film's famous closing scene, in which the surviving characters mournfully sing "God Bless America").
The Vietnam sequence has come under attack for its supposed historical inaccuracy. There's little evidence to suggest that the kind of Russian roulette games the film depicts actually took place. However, the use of Russian roulette (as opposed to one of the real-life horrors the war actually offered) is what makes the film seem less like a statement about a specific time and more like a statement which remains relevant today. What actually happens is less important than the long-lasting effect of what happens, which is the film's real point of interest. As an examination of the manner in which violence changes people, The Deer Hunter is devastatingly effective (and it should certainly be noted that the roulette sequences work remarkably as intense drama on their own terms -- they leave the searing impact on us they're supposed to).
Things remain a little messy from a logical perspective in the second half. There are quite a few details regarding Nick's fate which are less than convincing (I won't spoil them, as I'd need to reveal some large plot developments in order to do so), and the De Niro character never quite snaps into focus the way we expect him to. For a time, it seems as if Michael is the central subject in an in-depth character study, but he often transforms into something of an audience surrogate. There are moments when the film feels like it's straining to persuade the viewer that it's saying something terribly important when at times it seems uncertain of what exactly it's trying to say.
So yes, a case can certainly be made that The Deer Hunter is overrated and is now well past its sell-by date. However, to examine the movie from a purely clinical perspective is to short-change the undeniable power of the experience. For all of its faults, the film is a bleakly immersive piece of Americana which contains moments of rarely-matched power. Consider the scene in which Michael visits Steven late in the film, or the emotionally-charged tension of Michael's encounter with Nick, or the almost spiritual resonance of the deer hunting sequences, or the broken soulfulness found within Meryl Streep's supporting turn, or the suffocating manner in which the film uses silence, or the contrasting images of small-town Pennsylvania before and after the war. If The Deer Hunter is an ambitious failure on an intellectual level, it's a nearly unparalleled success on an emotional one. It fudges facts, cheats and stumbles to get there, but the film delivers precisely the emotional wallop it sets out to deliver.
Throughout all of the chaos, the performances remain solid. Robert De Niro proves a moving center, turning in one of the most restrained performances of his heyday. John Savage turns in a career-defining performance as Steven, while Christopher Walken subdues his trademark tics (yet capitalizes on his strange aura) to deliver the film's most memorable piece of dramatic work. John Cazale isn't given quite enough to do (he was suffering from terminal bone cancer during filming, and it shows), but he's never less than persuasive in his final big-screen appearance. It could be argued that the best performance comes from Meryl Streep, who gives the film a welcome female perspective and masterfully forms a quiet chemistry with De Niro.
As one of the last HD-DVD releases finally making its way to Blu-ray, The Deer Hunter (Blu-ray) arrives sporting a satisfying 2.35:1/1080p transfer. The film has always been a grainy, grimy picture, and that hasn't changed: you'll find a that a lot of the material looks rough, which is precisely how it was designed to look. There's occasional evidence of light DNR, but nothing too egregious (there's still a good deal of natural grain present -- it's hard to imagine the movie without it). Detail is solid, shadow delineation impresses and the moments of brighter color have some impressive clarity. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is strong, with the chaotic Vietnam sequences packing an enormous punch (brief as they are). Elsewhere, the score by Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer is given a rich, full mix and dialogue is well-captured. Sound design is impressively preserved too, considering the film's age.
The bonus features are the same underwhelming extras we've been offered on Universal's recent releases: a commentary by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fischer, some deleted scenes, a trailer, and the same "100 Years of Universal: Academy Award Winners" featurette which is making the rounds on Universal anniversary releases. The Region B Blu-ray offered a host of superior supplements, but not of those are available here. Also disappointing: Universal now seems to be adopting the MGM approach of neglecting to provide disc menus for some of their catalogue releases. To access the bonus features, you'll need to select the pop-up menu.
Warts and all, The Deer Hunter remains a powerful experience. Though the movie deserves better than this lackluster Blu-ray release.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 182 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy