Throwback Review: The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter movie poster

Sixth in a series of “throwback” posts. This review was written in November 1987, when the author was 18 years old, just out of high school, working two jobs and watching two movies every night.

In Hindsight: This is the first “throwback” movie I haven’t seen since I originally wrote about it.  I purchased the DVD years ago and haven’t watched it.  The Deer Hunter is known for its Russian roulette sequences.  I became aware of the movie when an older boy in our town died, specifically imitating scenes in the film.  I find it curious that I didn’t address the tragedy when I wrote this, because it’s the reason I watched.  I don’t remember being upset by the news (I didn’t know him) but my ambivalence suggests otherwise.

This is a somber film, daunting in its length, but I watched it at two in the morning and it held me rapt until dawn. It’s divided into three sections (like a novel, or an opera). First there’s a wedding; next is Vietnam; finally there’s the aftermath. It’s fascinating how the director takes his time and allows us to get to know these characters – we feel like we understand something about them and the lives they lead. When they react to situations we say, “Of course,” because we know they would have done exactly that.

The Deer Hunter movie posterThese people inhabit a steel milling town, and the ties between them feel honest and deep. There is friendship, and there’s anxiety lurking. This elegiac drama is transformed when the film jump cuts to Vietnam, and some are captured by the enemy, and… It’s amazingly intense. And then afterward: can these people ever recover the lives they once lived? Decisions are made. The climax feels inevitable. It’s shattering.

DeNiro is brilliant here. It’s almost cliché to say that, but he provides a master class in acting. Michael Cimino directs with a sure hand, and the cinematography is crisp and a little more intense than life. It all comes together to deliver an impressive emotional wallop. You’ve probably heard about the Russian roulette sequences – these have to be some of the most excruciating scenes ever filmed. By the end of the film, we’re drained, and we share catharsis with the characters in the touching final scene. The entire experience is almost unbearably powerful. But after everything, hope remains.

November 18, 1987