As anyone who knows cinema can tell you, the 70s were a revolutionary period for cinema. There was a new school that swept through and brought us genre defying (and defining) films from visionary filmmakers. With it also brought the young actors who are now widely recognized as legends. I’m thinking of one actor in particular — John Cazale. In the seventies, he was in five films that were nominated for Best Picture. He was engaged to Meryl Streep and he sadly succumbed to cancer in 1978. He was a fantastic character actor with the aforementioned phenomenal career. Why the quick bio of Mr. Cazale? Simple. He is in one of my favorite films of all time, and the film that I am reviewing tonight, The Deer Hunter.
If you haven’t seen this film, stop reading this and go watch it. It will be 3 hours of intricately paced storytelling that you will never forget. The cast includes such powerhouses of acting as Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro and John Savage. Of course, John Cazale plays a perpetual screw up that gets under Michael’s (De Niro) skin. It is a small, but memorable role. Now, I could spend this entire review telling you about the erie score that you swear you’ve heard before, the great cinematography, and the obviously fantastic acting that brings the beautifully written story to life.
Said story revolves around Michael, the titular Deer Hunter, and his group of friends who work at a Pennsylvania steel mill amidst the Vietnam War. Michael, Steven (Savage) and Nick (Walken) are best friends that all enlist together and are shipping out in a few days. The movie begins with Steven getting married and the group of friends going off on one last hunting trip together. After which, they cut to the three of them already in Vietnam. What follows is a harrowing and emotionally charged series of events that take place while all three friends are captured. This event leads to Nick and Steven having a mental break. Michael is able to get the three of them out, but when they stumble across and American helicopter, he is only able to get Nick aboard. This is one of the last times that Michael will see his best friend. Steven is injured and Michael winds up carrying him to allied territory and getting him the help he needs. Michael gets shipped home and doesn’t quite know how to fit in. The entire film revolves around how a small town man copes with the horrors he witnessed in Vietnam and how it changed his perceptions and relationships of his life from before the war. I’m trying not to go into too much detail because this film deserves to be viewed. Meryl Streep plays Linda, a love interest for both Michael and his best friend Nick. Before they go off to war we see the quiet, contemplating Michael show affection to her, but it is Nick that makes his intentions known as he asks her to marry him when they get back. She obviously has feelings for both of them, but she seems to love Nick and accepts his offer. Michael and Steven are the only two that return from Vietnam as Nick is reported as going AWOL after the events when they were captured. Steven has lost both of his legs and an arm and lives in a VA hospital while his wife and child are being taken care of by his mother. His mental break leaves him ashamed and unable to deal with his new circumstances. When Michael gets home, he intentionally avoids everyone else except for Linda, whom he still cares deeply for. She is shaken at the absence of Nick, but she eventually grows closer to Michael. The two of them start a relationship when Michael is invited to a hunting trip with the remainder of the group of friends (of which Cazale is one of them). While on the trip, Michael has a spiritual experience when he chases down and lets a buck live, this is the first time he has ever not gotten the deer he has pursued and when he gets back to the cabin, Cazale’s character is being his usual self and one of the things he does triggers a violent response from Michael as it reminds him of the traumatic event from Vietnam. He ends the trip early and they all arrive home the next day. This flashback event makes Michael a bit distant from Linda and causes him to visit Steven in the VA hospital. While there, Steven is obviously suffering from a mental break, but has a few lucid moments. In one of these moments, he reveals that his sock drawer is full of money from Vietnam that comes every month or so. Michael concludes that Nick is still alive. The film then takes Michael on a journey back to Vietnam during the events that took place when the U.S. withdrew. Complete with the historic fleeing of the embassy and the aircraft carriers knocking helicopters into the ocean to make room for more people. In a series of scenes that reflect the grimy seventies film style completely, Michael tracks down Nick to an illegal gambling parlor where one of the most iconic scenes in film takes place. The film ends with Michael back in Pennsylvania with Linda and the rest of the group in a very melancholy scene that sums up the entire theme of the film. A loss of innocence and how people struggle to pick up the pieces and move on after they find themselves in a life that no longer resembles what they knew.
I understand that my summary of the film isn’t really a review, but I felt that the movie is an essential viewing for any film lover. You can’t just read a review or summary and think that it is enough. You need to watch it. I intentionally left the pivotal parts of the film ambiguous and, in some cases, absent altogether. I couldn’t bring myself to spoil these scenes. Hell, my worlds couldn’t even do them justice. The only thing I can do is tell you what anyone else can tell you. The film is a product of its era, but it stands apart as a beautifully made product. It isn’t like most Vietnam films in that it focuses on a group of friends and events through the eyes of one individual that experienced Vietnam. He didn’t fight, or witness events, he experienced all that conflict had to offer and then had to go home and pick up the pieces. How can he go back to what things were before? Why does it all matter? How does it matter at this point?
The film is damned near perfect. As I said, brilliantly made. The acting is second to none and I feel that it is De Niro’s best role of that period. I know that people may think I’m crazy considering that this was his genesis as an actor. It was De Niro in the 70s. To me, though, this was his best film. Sure, Taxi Driver showcased his range and talent, The Deer Hunter showcased his humanity and apathy. So, yes. This film is worth seeing. I think there are a few films that should be required viewing for anyone who declares themselves a film fan. Hell, if more people took the time to watch films like this, I doubt we would have the sludge that is pushed out now. And it isn’t because Hollywood is talentless and out of ideas. It is because they know what will make money. Stupid, popcorn flicks will make money. Original, artsy, instant classics are a risky enterprise. So, watch as many classics as you can. Study what is arguably the best period in cinema history and take notes. This is what real cinema is. Then, try to to think about how a talentless woman like Kristen Stewart is making three times as much as Meryl Streep.
This isn’t a review. It is a trailer for a film that was released 35 years ago.