This weekend, I watched The Deer Hunter for the first time (I know, I had to watch 5 hours of Gilmore Girls afterwards just to recover my weekend). It’s one of those movies that I felt like I just needed to see, and Saturday night seemed like a good time.
I’m not going to spend time reviewing the plot here, but since we have an orthodox spoiler alertist on our hands, I’ll put a [Spoiler Alert] here. Since I already kind of knew what was coming, the *shock* of the Russian Roulette scenes weren’t the most interesting or moving parts for me. Rather, I was struck by 1. the social dynamics of the Pennsylvanian town and 2. how unpolitical it was.
Unsurprisingly, the acting performances are amazing. The movie (1978) features Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep in what became career-defining/making performances for each. De Niro had already made it: he’d already won his Oscar for The Godfather: Part II (1972), and he was just coming off the critical acclaim from Taxi Driver (1976). I found his character intensely likable, even if I couldn’t believe that he had so little PTSD from the war. Perhaps his performance was so restrained that he was charming, but unbelievable. The only fallout we see from his trauma is a withdrawn stoicism and selective explosive yelling–which was already in his character beforehand. His character arc is that he doesn’t change.
As far as I know, Christopher Walken wasn’t in anything of consequence before his smaller role in Annie Hall (1977) the year before. And (again, correct me if I’m wrong), I’m not sure he’s played a real person since The Deer Hunter. Today, Walken is a walking (ha!) parody of himself, a staple of comedic impressionists, who I’ve always assumed could act but because of his celebrity has decided to make a living by not giving a fuck and just playing himself. But in The Deer Hunter he’s a fully-realized person I recognize–until he loses it. Even that is more believable than his current public persona. No wonder this is when he earned his Oscar.
And then dear Meryl. This was her first big movie part, and according to her, she got the part because De Niro saw her in a small production in NYC. I like that story. She’s completely believable as the broken Linda, just trying to figure out her life among all these explosive men around her. But what I find more interesting is Streep’s real-life romantic relationship with John Cazale (Fredo from the Godfather movies), who also starred in The Deer Hunter.
Cazale was dying of cancer as they filmed the movie, and never lived to see it finished. With all this emotion going on off-screen, it’s no wonder these undeniably amazing actors were able to channel so much into their roles.
The Vietnam War is the context for the major drama of the film, but The Deer Hunter had very little to say about the war itself. The war is just the crucible–the film is sort-of about how three different men respond to trauma. At least that’s what I think it was doing. But I think the legacy/memory of the Vietnam War has occluded some of the more important themes in the film.
It’s unlike most of the movies on the Vietnam War, and not because it’s saying something new about it. The Deer Hunter is the beginning of the first wave of movies about the war; it came out three years after the official U.S. withrdrawal from the war (1975), the same year as Coming Home (1978) and a year before Apocalypse Now (1979). Coming Home is a narrative of the Vietnam War we are much more familiar with: the trauma of the war leads to questioning, self-discovery, and radicalism for soldiers and people at home.
Apocalypse Now is of course a re-imagination of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899), and it details soldiers’ descent into madness. Both Coming Home and Apocalypse Now lay the groundwork for the political messages that films like Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) hounded home, that resonate with the virulent anti-war protests of the late 60s and early 70s.
The Deer Hunter has more in common with the 2009 film Brothers. Rather than taking a political stance on the war, the war could have been replaced with some other traumatic event away from their hometown without changing the story.
A note here: the portrayal of Vietnamese people in the film is appalling. It reifies all the horrible stereotypes the war generated about Vietnamese enemy: that they were sadistic, greedy, and exploitive. But, and maybe this is my white privilege speaking, I didn’t think the film was making a statement about the Vietnamese–it drew from existing stereotypes and used them to concoct the ultimate evil that its main characters needed to face. It didn’t end with a message about whether the war was necessary or just. It needed a big bad and so it used the most recognizable and accessible option. I’m not excusing its virulent racism or its fabricated events (there is no recorded incident of Northern Vietnamese soldiers making their POWs play Russian Roulette). I’m just saying that demonizing Vietnamese people wasn’t its main goal.
Indeed, if that had been the goal, then the first act of the film would need to have set up existing opinions about the war. Instead, it sets up the social dynamics of a Pennsylvania factory town populated largely by working-class Russian-Americans. Masculinity in this community is premised upon the ability to exert violence upon others. Women are often the victims: Streep’s alcoholic father hits her when she brings him his dinner, and Cazale knocks out his girlfriend/dance partner when another man gropes her while dancing with her. Violence is a language through which to express emotion, even at a wedding.
Deer hunting is an important bonding activity for solidifying strong male friendship. Cazale carries a gun just for himself, because it makes him feel powerful. De Niro is odd because he prefers to kill a deer with one shot, so as to minimize both the shooting and the suffering.
Within this mess of overall loser friends, Walken and De Niro have a romantic friendship. Their homoeroticism is complicated by Streep–and together they form a love triangle most similar to that of Andrew Lincoln, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Keira Knightley in Love Actually. (We can only assume that if Walken and Streep had a wedding, De Niro would have planned an elaborate surprise rendition of “All You Need is Love,” just like Lincoln did).
Cazale even accuses De Niro of homosexuality, but the movie recovers from this by demonstrating that a) Cazale is a fool and b) De Niro is in love with Streep. As a romance, Walken had to die so that De Niro and Streep could get together without betraying him. De Niro had to go back for Walken to close that door. I like to think that Streep is better off with De Niro.
As the foil/cautionary tale, John Savage plays the hen-picked member of this group. We see his mother bossing him around on his wedding day and he marries a girl who is pregnant with another man’s baby. This weakness is later manifested in his complete inability to deal with the trauma of Russia Roulette. His character is permanently unmanned by the end: his two legs are amputated and his wife will forever have to care for him.
This is getting really long. I think The Deer Hunter is not particularly well-written, but is expertly acted. It’s not a statement about the war or even PTSD, it’s a meditation on violence: the way it is [constructed as] necessary for a certain strand of white working-class masculinity, and how it can completely destroy someone when expressed most senselessly.