The Deer Hunter (1978)

Directed by Michael Cimino

finalrussianroulettegame_thedeerhunter.pngThe Deer Hunter is about three friends and how their lives are changed by the Vietnam War, and yet we mostly see the characters before and after the war.  The film spends most of its time building up the image of pre-war Michael (Robert De Niro) Nicky (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) so that it can be torn down by the end.

These are young men who live in a small town in Pennsylvania and refuse to not absolutely enjoy the moment, even if they aren’t aware that they’re living in the moment.  When we first meet them, they’re getting off work at a steel mill and promptly heading to the bar to celebrate Steven’s impending marriage.  The boys are wild, loud and reckless.  In some movies this might be presented as a problem.  The boys need to grow up right?  Steven’s mother chides them for their ways, and it seems an issue that will need to be addressed.  The only difference here is that I think we know the boys will be changed by the war, so we’re anticipating the change.  This also has the effect, perhaps more in retrospect, of glorifying this moment in time.

Later, the film’s end credits will show still photos of each of the characters from this first act of the film, as if they have all died and are being eulogized.  Though all the characters, save for one, will have returned by the end, it’s clear that not all of them has returned.  Parts of them have died, so the first act is a celebration of life, not just of the boys but of the entire small town.

Steven’s wedding is a large, lavish event in which it feels like everyone is in attendance, like at a Texas high school football game.  The wedding doubles as a going away party for the three boys.  This is a celebration of more than just a wedding.  Director Michael Cimino actually filmed the wedding sequence over the course of 5 days, driving the actors to the edge of exhaustion.  He brought in extras whom he told to treat the event like a real wedding, meaning they drank a lot and probably weren’t very quiet.  This reminded me of a Robert Altman film in which it’s never about the individual conversations as much as the atmosphere of the room.  Characters talk over each other, and it feels like everyone is yelling.  In one scene, Stan (John Cazale) carries Michael into the center of the room to be honored alongside Steven and Nicky before they depart for Vietnam, and both Stan and Michael collapse onto the ground.  Though this is all aided by alcohol, the boys and the entire town are firing on all cylinders.  This is the happiest they will be in this story.

The group of friends (the soon-to-be soldiers as well as a few more guys) go hunting, and they celebrate a takedown of a deer which they tie to their hood and parade into town, hooting and hollering as if the wedding never ended.  They go to a bar and things begin to feel a little more somber as the realization of Vietnam hits the boys.

Suddenly we’re thrown into the second act and into the heart of the war.  Michael is already a different animal, the look in his eyes no longer tender, prideful or protective.  He witnesses a man kill a group of women and children before Michael kills him, as if awakening from a daze.  Nicky then arrives with another platoon, and he’s absolutely stunned when he sees his friend.  It’s unclear how much time has passed, but it’s enough to make sure you know that these aren’t the same friends from before.

We then cut right into another sequence of the film in which all three of the friends are held prisoner in a small hut both next to and submerged in a river.  The guards, for their own entertainment, make the prisoners play Russian Roulette.  Steven is already losing his mind, and Michael tries to keep him composed.  All three of the men eventually pull the trigger against their own head, but only Steven suffers a bullet wound, though he survives because his hand slips, leaving a nasty but nonfatal gash against his head.

In an incredibly tense scene, Michael and Nicky play the game.  Michael urges his friend to pull the trigger, knowing the only way to survive is to play the game.  Michael then insists that the guards up the stakes and put three bullets in the chamber.  Michael and Nicky survive another round, and then Michael ambushes the guards by using the three rounds to kill several of them while Nicky grabs a guard’s gun and helps finish off the job.

They grab Steven and float down a river until an American helicopter arrives that carries Nicky away to safety.  Michael and Steven, however, are left behind when Steven can’t hold onto the chopper, and Michael refuses to leave him behind.

The story leaves behind Nicky for a time as we follow Michael and the badly injured Steven who can’t walk.  He carries him on his back into friendly territory until he finds a South Vietnamese patrol that will help his friend.  At this point we abruptly leave Michael and return to Nicky who is recovering in an army hospital.  Nicky tries to call his fiancee back home, Linda (Meryl Streep), but he can’t go through with it.

Nicky then wanders through the streets of a nearby town with nowhere to go.  He makes his way into the a bar that plays Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia:

“He said he’s goin’ back to find
Goin’ back to find
Ooh, what’s left of his world
The world he left behind
Not so long ago”

Nicky is pulled into a room by a prostitute, but it’s not sex he wants, so he keeps wandering.  Rather than the sounds of singing or partying, what catches his attention is a gunshot and yelling.  He follows this sound and a Frenchman pulls him into a game of Russian Roulette where a bunch of men play and bet for money.  The winners of each game take home a wealthy reward.  Michael is also here, watching this game, apparently drawn to the same things as his friend, but Nicky never sees him.

Nicky reaches in and grabs one man’s gun and pulls the trigger against his own head, but the chamber is empty.  The Frenchman pulls Nicky away and tells him he can make him a very rich man if he’s “brave and lucky.”  Michael runs after him but can’t get to Nicky before he is driven away.

Soon Michael returns home, unclear of Nicky’s fate.  The town welcomes him with open arms (everyone knows him), but he spends one last night alone, choosing to stay at a nearby motel rather than attend the party thrown in his honor.  When he does return, Michael seeks the comfort of Nicky’s fiancee, Linda, with whom he has shared some earlier affections.

When Michael learns that Steven is still alive, his focus turns completely to his old friend.  Michael is a protector and a pack leader, essentially.  He’s like a wolf, both when he’s hunting, and when he’s trying to find his friend.

Steven, now with both legs amputated, willfully stays at a clinic rather than come home to his wife.  He reveals to Michael that he’s been getting money sent to him from Saigon.  Michael takes this to mean that Nicky is still alive.

Back in Vietnam, Michael pays for information that will lead him to Nicky.  He ultimately finds him at another game of Russian Roulette, which Nicky has probably played dozens, even hundreds of times, given how much time has passed.  His chances of survival in that many 50/50 games is highly unlikely, suggesting that the next game he plays will be his last, at least in terms of how the story works dramatically.

Michael tries to convince his friend to return home, but Nicky is nothing like the Nicky from Pennsylvania.  Michael decides that the only way he can get through to his friends is to speak his new language, so he challenges him to a game of Russian Roulette.  Both men pull the trigger and survive.  Michael pleads for Nicky to come home with him, and the mentions of home seem to have some influence, as Nicky’s steady gaze begins to falter.  It feels like he will come through, but instead he grabs the gun and shoots himself in the head.

In the end, it seemed to me like Nicky remembered his friend and where he came from, yet he decided to pull the trigger anyway because he knew he could never truly come back home.

Back in Pennsylvania, the town holds a funeral for their fallen son, and the tight-knit group of friends, including Michael, Steven, Linda, Stan and other hunting friends, gathers for a post-funeral breakfast.  This scene is presented in stark contrast to the earlier gatherings of the friends.  Once they couldn’t help but talk over each other, unknowingly demonstrating an engagement with life, now they struggle to say even the simplest words.  They’re like characters from Pixar’s Inside Out but inside the head of Kurt Cobain in the days leading up to his death.  It’s incredibly bleak and unsettling, but they don’t talk about the pain.  Instead they try desperately to make breakfast and pretend it’s a normal day.

If the town and the group of friends is a human brain, then the first act of the film shows a mind with the synapses firing, and the final scene shows the mind of someone who can hardly take care of themselves yet is unwilling to engage with the root of the problem.  Their idea of fixing things is buy pouring coffee or making scrambled eggs.  Shocked and debilitated, that’s all they can do.

So much of The Deer Hunter is jarring, and that’s the point.  In addition to the sudden change from Pennsylvania to deep in the Vietnam War, there are several moments in the film in which we leave a character and are unsure of their fate going forward.  After Michael brings Steven into friendly territory and gives him away to another patrol, it’s unclear if Steven will survive.  After all, he was already on the edge of death.

The story then forgets about Michael, and the next time we see him (by following Nicky), his beard has grown back out and he’s watching men kill themselves by playing Russian Roulette.  In this scene it felt to me like Michael had already experienced another round of transformation.  First he became a soldier, and now what is he?  Like Nicky, he’s drawn to the sounds of gunfire and death because that’s what he became so familiar with.  Yet the core of Michael is still there, unlike with Nicky.

When Michael is unable to catch up to his friend, we follow him back home, and we don’t know what happens with Nicky until Michael finds him again back in Vietnam.

The film makes you uncomfortable, not just by scenes of heightened drama and tension, but also by never feeling settled.  Everything feels like it could go wrong and eventually does.  Even in the first act, the audience knows the boys will transform in the war.  Just in case you didn’t know, there’s a returned soldier who prefers not to speak and tries to forget about Vietnam.  He might as well be Michael by the end of the film who chooses to wear his uniform around town, like this man, and who tries to keep to himself.

This film came out in 1979, so not too long after the war.  I suppose it wasn’t obvious to the audience that these boys would go to war and suffer for it.  Sure there was antiwar sentiment in the country, but before this film I believe there were still mostly war films that glorified the war experience like soldiers were cowboys instead of young, unprepared and uncared for boys.

When Michael returns home, he is embraced by the entire town, but you still have the feeling that there’s something in him that needs fixing, and he’s the only one who can fix it.  I couldn’t but think of the many veterans who returned from war and suffered from (occasionally undiagnosed) PTSD which basically ruined their lives.  Many of them became addicts, alcoholics and/or homeless.  I looked at Michael and wondered if he would end up that way too, even while people were patting him on the back.  As the townsfolk approached him, they treated him like they did before he left, unaware that he was a different man.

The lasting image of this film is a man with a gun to his head.  Michael Cimino has said that this film isn’t meant to be taken literally.  The games of Russian Roulette, rather than documented occurrences in the war, were representations of what the war did to us, and what we did to ourselves.  When I was a kid, the war we heard about on the news was the Iraq War.  I was 11 at the time, and I remember wondering if I would ever be drafted, unsure of the plausibility of a modern day draft but frightened of one nevertheless.

It was a scary time, and I’m not sure how much I was aware of the goings on in the war.  My parents would put on the nightly news broadcasts, and I remember hearing reports of soldiers who had died, whether just one or several.  Maybe it was a bombing or gunfire or whatever.  I don’t recall the details, but I do remember wondering how this particular person’s death made any difference in what was happening.  There was no sense that the death toll meant anything, like we were closer and closer to “winning” the war, as if the war could be represented through some fundraiser type of drawing of a beaker filling up with the donation total until they hit their target at which point we could move on.

Every death felt like a detour, even if some did make a difference.  The majority of them, in my mind, made no impact at all, and it’s more troubling to imagine people giving their lives for something that means nothing.  I can’t tell if it’s more tragic that they believe what they’re fighting for or if they don’t believe in it at all.

So the point of this film, then, is to say that this war and war in general is absurd.  The Frenchman who pulls Nicky into his new and final life of roulette, downplays the war, calling it meaningless, as if these games of life or death that take place in small rooms with money changing hands is any more ridiculous than the concept of war.  Russian Roulette, then, is a microcosm of war.  Nicky dies, and his death serves absolutely nothing.

It’s a dark film with a dark ending, but it shouldn’t be a surprise.


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