Film review by Jason Day of director Michael Cimino’s movie about a group of steel mill workers who enlist to fight in the Vietnam war and find their lives irrevocably changed by it. Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep.
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A group of Pennsylvanian steel factory workers say goodbye to their innocence in the months preceding the Vietnam War draft and celebrate one of them getting married in big style. Plenty of booze and a lads-only deer hunt in the mountains.
All of them survive the war, but are left with deep psychological scars after the torture they underwent at the hands of a psychotic group of Viet Cong soldiers.
Returning home, Mikey (Robert De Niro) has to adjust to a home that has changed in this eyes and tries to connect with Linda (Meryl Streep) who is his friend’s fiancee.
Review, by Jason Day
For gifted writer-director Michael Cimino, the light that burned twice as bright burnt out twice as fast.
On a critical and commercial high after his first stint wielding the megaphone (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974), he developed and directed The Deer Hunter, less of a war movie and more an examination of the effects of trauma and torture on your average, working class Joe, with the Vietnam War as part of the back drop (most of the film actually takes place in a working class borough of Pennsylvania, dominated by a huge steel works.
After this, like Orson Welles with his Citizen Kane more than 30 years before him, it was all downhill. The catastrophic box office failure of his next epic, the mighty western Heaven’s Gate (1980), virtually destroyed United Artists as a production concern. The blame fell largely on Cimino’s shoulders and he paid the price with his career (he would only directed another four films before his death in 2016).
This film is his magnum opus and commands your respect.
The opening is almost primordial, with the hell-fire and brimstone of the factory. It is a fulcrum of early life, albeit one completely devoid of females, with an uncomfortable head emanating off the screen, sparks flying and molten metal spewing in rivers.
The women are very much outsiders in this film, either old crones wrapped in fur coats and working boots, pregnant newly-weds or willow blonde girls, but they are important catalysts for the men’s emotional sides. This is beautifully portrayed by Meryl Streep in one of her earliest film performances and the one that scooped her the first of her unprecedented 21 Oscar nominations (she has, of course, won three times, twice as Best Actress).
Is Streep, presented as the epitome of feminine grace, rarefied and rather obviously a cut above the other girls in town, a deer to be hunted as well? De Niro certainly takes his time pursuing her, having appreciated her from afar for many years, patiently stalking her like the deer in the mountain, likewise a thing of beauty that captivates him and his friends.
Unlike the deer that he slays with one crack shot, Mikey keeps missing Streep with his other weapon, decidedly half cocked.
Cimino’s style is grand, stately and leisurely in this opening act. The wedding (of Jon Savage’s character to Rutanya Alda) takes a full 36 minutes of the film’s duration, form when we first see the Bridesmaids to the point where a pissed De Niro goes for a naked dash through town.
Cimino covers the diaspora of all working class life in scenes that would have impressed Lucino Visconti, another director who liked to linger on a moment. The men shoot pool and get drunk, the women fret about their hair and make-up, Streep is beaten by her drunken, abusive father, mothers moan about their sons and soon-to-be sons-in-law, people fret about the lack of respect from the young and how traditions and orthodox religious beliefs are being forgotten by them (the town is populated by mostly Russian emigres).
The Vietnam scenes don’t take place until an hour into the movie but as the most devastating and impactful, with the ‘Russian Roulette’ gun scenes giving The Deer Hunter continued notoriety. Be warned, they still have the potential to shock but also give Christopher Walken the chance to seriously impress audiences. Later, years after the war has ended, he continues to place a revolver to his temples, dead behind the eyes and carrying deep emotional scars. He appears to do and say very little, which makes this performance even more memorable.
De Niro is magisterial, literally King-like, as the quiet alpha male of the group, the only one who manages to (just about) keep his shit together during the appalling conditions of his interment.
There are other quietly impressive support performances from Savage and an impossibly young George Dzunda, as the only loud member of the group.
Deservedly, he won 1979’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The film was the big hitter at international film awards. It won another four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director) and was nominated for 48 other awards around the globe.
Cast & credits
Director: Michael Cimino. 175mins. Universal. (18)
Producers: Michael Cimino, Michael Deeley, John Peverall, Barry Spikings.
Writer: Deric Washburn.
Camera: Vilmos Zsigmond.
Music: Stanley Myers.
Sets: Ron Hobbs, Kim Swados.
Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, George Dzunda, Shirley Stoller, Chuck Aspegren, Rutanya Alda.