Saturday, October 9, 2021

(79) The Deer Hunter - 1978

I've watched the vast majority of the movies on the Top 100 list since I last posted, and today watched The Deer Hunter for the second time. Actually, since it's a three-hour movie, I watched most of it yesterday and finished it today. There is just something about it that made me want to share my thoughts on this film.

I think it's that contrast it provides. Stark contrasts about real life during that period of time. Set during the latter stages of Vietnam, we see the characters share the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The lows are hard to watch, honestly, and I really don't know how real folks deal with such fates as the people in this movie.

I guess it's about perseverance and strength and accepting those things you cannot change. And just doing the best that you can. We see a certain innocence stripped away from a group of close friends and family that is through no fault of their own. It was just war, man.

Robert DeNiro is the star of the film, though he merely heads up a stellar cast including the first big-time role for Meryl Streep. DeNiro is Mike and the "deer hunter". He's the thread through which most of the movie runs. To me though, the focal point is Christopher Walken as Nick. He's the one I remembered from watching the first time. I'm often so bad with movie details. I forgot DeNiro was even in this picture, but that's because of my memory and not because of his performance. The thing I remembered was Nick and his fate.

I'll try to avoid spoilers here if I can while describing what I saw and why I think it's memorable. The first hour or so of the movie centers around a group of friends including Mike, Nick, and Steven (John Savage). In this first portion of the film, Steven is getting married. The wedding day, shown in great detail in the first hour, creates the contrast I mentioned.

The other important part we discover during the wedding day, early on, is that not only is Stevie getting married, but he, Mike, and Nick are headed off to Vietnam a couple days later. The three friends are young and working in the local plant, doing as friends do. Drinking beer, cutting up with each other, and even going hunting. DeNiro is the big hunter, yeah, but all the others go along and participate to differing degrees.

Nick seems to be a good hunter as well, but another friend, Stan (John Cazale) is the butt of the jokes, showing up to hunt with the small pistol that he carries around everywhere. To me, it helps to show that Mike is the serious hunter of the group, as we see him take out a deer with a high-powered rifle. It's all preamble for the fun we see at the wedding.

The friends all go home and get ready for the wedding. It's all pretty casual, although the wedding itself is very traditional. It's all very 1970s to me. Which it was made during and set in. Reminds me to a degree what my parents' wedding might have been like. That evening, a major party is thrown for the bride and groom that doubles as the send-off for the three friends headed for war.

Everyone has such a good time. It's good they have it now because, for the three young men and their families/friends back home, life is about to get a lot more real. In Vietnam, the three are initially separated but wind up finding each other before being captured. They escape, but not before going through some epic torture in which they see many of their fellow soldiers killed, one by one, through an absolutely brutal game of Russian Roulette. It is this torture that Nick never can escape emotionally, and Stevie cannot physically. 

 You have to see it to fully understand. It had an effect on me as I saw the three main characters deal with life in the aftermath. Mikey returns home, where he has a hard time fitting back into normal society after what he and his close friends experienced while fighting the war. Streep plays an important part in helping him get through, though she still holds a candle for the missing Nick. Mike also doesn't know the status of Stevie.

Mike goes to great lengths to find his friends and bring them home. I'll let you watch to see how it actually comes out in the end. I can say that it's not a great, happy ending. The characters will never again dance and sing in quite the same way they did on the night of the wedding. Though a good amount of time passes during the movie, it is three hours long, giving time for us to see that contrast of where life was innocent and good when we meet the characters but never will be the same again when we leave them.

This film was ranked number 79 on the original AFI list but jumps all the way to number 53 on the revised 2007 list. For me, it was far better than 79. 53 seems more appropriate. Quite a number of the films on the list are as good or better. This one should not be missed. It's real. It's gritty. As I said, it has the highest of highs and lowest of lows. 

As of this writing, you can see the movie for free (with ads) on the IMDb TV app.

I'll leave you with a link to a contemporary New York Times review, to get a feel for how critics saw this one at the time of its initial release. I'm going to read this now to see how my thoughts compare after seeing it myself.

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