The Deer Hunter (1978)

Put simply, some films are just too long. The Deer Hunter is one of those films, bloating the typical three act structure into a whopping three hours, giving each act is about an hour. Now perhaps the film needs these three hours to do stuff like develop the characters or craft the plot, but it really doesn’t. The film isn’t that complex and it takes far too much time to do far too little.

Heck, the film is only about three people, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Linda (Meryl Streep). Michael and Nick are about to go over to Vietnam, along with their buddy Steven (John Savage) who is getting married the weekend before they go over. Linda is that sweetheart that Nick can come back to. So then we get like a sweet, tearful goodbye and then the war right?

Wrong. First we get what has to be one of the longest wedding sequences of all time. It’s a good chunk of the first hour of the film. Heck, I’m fairly certain the only way you could make longer wedding sequence is if the entire film was a wedding. But hey, this could be a great place to develop the characters or immerse us into this small Russian community. But the film doesn’t do either. Instead we just get a lot of drinking, dancing and music. Hey wait, isn’t that the music to Tetris?

So finally, the wedding ends and the guys go out on one last deer hunt. And it’s a good thing because at this point the film needs two things: violence and some nature shots. Of particular interest (at least to yours truly) are the nature shots. The low light and the misty fog rolling into the beautiful mountains make for these ethereal, dreamlike shots which these men trounce through while searching for that magnificent beast.

And then the war erupts, starting off with an explosive sequence. It’s here that the film starts delving into the Michael character who is a bit off. In domestic life it doesn’t show as much, but on the battlefield the madness is apparent. However, the film intentionally fails to entertain in this section, instead shoving the characters and us quickly into the seedy underbelly of this war.

Which leads us to the game that made this movie ingrained in the culture: Russian roulette. While I could see the controversy that it sparked, I’m far more interested in what the game is representing. It certainly isn’t something that the writer came up with because he thought it would be cool. If anything, it’s grueling and horrific. However, it does succinctly encapsulate this idea that war and violence is mindless and random. Six chambers, one bullet and the chance that you might just be unlucky.

The last act then deals with the return and recuperation. What happens to these people after the war? It’s at this point that I finally realized that somehow, somewhere I became interested in these characters. It took the film a good two hours, but this last hour of the film actually became interesting and compelling. I was suddenly drawn into the lives of these characters that it had just observed with the mildest amount of curiosity.

And it’s a shame that it took the film so long to get to that point. The real heft and emotion of the film is in this last hour. The film should have been carved down greatly in the editing room. Give me a copy of final cut pro, a mac and a DVD copy of The Deer Hunter and I’ll splice together a tight picture that has a good pace to it. Instead the film is left for quite a while meandering over nothing in particular. Once I actually cared about the charters that didn’t bug me as much but the film took its sweet time getting to that crucial point.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing