A mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran works as a night-time taxi driver in New York City where the perceived decadence and sleaze feeds his urge for violent action, attempting to save a preadolescent prostitute in the process.
Robert De Niro,
Michael, Steven and Nick are young factory workers from Pennsylvania who enlist into the Army to fight in Vietnam. Before they go, Steven marries the pregnant Angela and their wedding-party is also the men's farewell party. After some time and many horrors the three friends fall in the hands of the Vietcong and are brought to a prison camp in which they are forced to play Russian roulette against each other. Michael makes it possible for them to escape, but they soon get separated again. Written by
Leon Wolters <wolters@strw.LeidenUniv.nl>
During some of the Russian Roulette scenes, a live round was put into the gun to heighten the actors' tension. This was Robert De Niro's suggestion. It was checked, however, to make sure the bullet was not in the chamber before the trigger was pulled. See more »
Of the first two American films about the Vietnam war with a priceless artistic weight, "the Deer Hunter" wins hands down over "Apocalypse Now" (1979) although Francis Ford Coppola's work is very potent too.
But would it be judicious to pigeonhole Michael Cimino's work in the category of the war movie? Unlike Coppola's visual nightmare, only the central part takes place in Vietnam and the filmmaker barely shoots one fight sequence before Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Stevie (John Savage) are prisoners of the enemy and are forced to play Russian roulette in the notorious unbearable scene. Actually "the Deer Hunter" is a film straddling two movie genres: the war movie and the social drama. Rather than shooting a political film, Cimino chose to represent us the deadly impact this nightmarish war had on an American community whose hopes and values disappeared.
Dividing his work in three parts: before, during, after and thanks to symbolical images, scenes or even eloquent details, Cimino used and honed his own cinematographic language to set out his stalls and the result can only command respect and admiration. Each sequence could be separately taken and carefully studied like the representation of the humdrum but reassuring living standards of the blue-collars with their everyday rituals (Cimino's obsession with rites and customs) revolving around factory, bar, friends and hunting (you have to admire the startling contrast between the dirty little town and the gorgeous, wild landscapes). Archetypal sequences that epitomize life and it reaches its height in the famous, unusually long wedding sequence. Perhaps Cimino wanted to stretch this sequence to make his characters take advantage of this rapture moment. But even during this state of bliss that lives inside them, the imminent tragedy ominously lurks: Mike and Nick gently laugh at an officer who remains dumb and when Stevie and his wife have to drink in a dish, some drops fall on her wedding dress. This sequence also epitomizes the polar opposite to the sequence of the Russian roulette in which death is just around the corner. After the war when Mike comes back to the small town, he's completely altered. Before, a devotee of deer hunting; after his traumatizing experience, he can't kill one. He's unable to talk about about what he went through and for his sidekicks, the experience of a war like this one is incomprehensible. Cimino eschews classical, predictable storytelling and hasn't recourse to psychological study. Nearly everything occurs in gestures and looks while the suggested has a meaty part in the dialogs. Besides, during the whole movie the topic of the war is barely mentioned by the characters. A lyrical whiff blows on the film, dovetailed by Cimino's astounding directing.
Cimino was consumed with ambition and went at it hammer and tongs to get his crew completely involved in his project. He was hard on his actors (Robert De Niro has often said that "the Deer Hunter" was his most grueling role to date) and was obsessed with absolute control. But the efforts weren't vain at all and gave a heartfelt, invaluable yardstick in war movie, even American cinema which reached the streets when America rose from its ruins. It was also the beginning of the end for Cimino, a filmmaker ahead of his time and on the fringe of cinematographic trends.
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