Michael Cimino’s masterpiece The Deer Hunter is one of the greatest films ever made. Concerning a group of steel worker friends in Pennsylvania, the movie shows us the comradery and good natured fun they enjoy together leading up to their departure for Vietnam. We open on the day of Stevie’s (John Savage) wedding, a joyous time before the hell that will soon swallow them whole. A very traditional Russian ceremony leads into a raucous reception at a friend’s bar (George Dzundza), where at its conclusion Robert De Niro’s Michael and Christopher Walken’s Nick make a pact to not leave each other behind during the war. These two are best friends of the kind that nothing else matters. Michael says before their deer hunt, one last go before shipping off, that if it wasn’t for Nick he’d go alone, the other guys are just idiots, he doesn’t need them.
There is an abrupt cut over to the jungles and helicopters of Vietnam. De Niro is killing with anger in his eyes; the hunt has higher stakes now that humans are involved. Who knows how much time has passed, but coming off the helicopter is Nick and Stevie, physically having to hit Michael out of his cold stare to acknowledge the reunion. It’s short lived, however, as they are captured and taken to a hut to be used in a game of Russian Roulette for entertainment. Here is where we see the leadership Michael has had all his life come to the front. Only he has the courage to get them through the game for an escape. Once he and Nick carry Stevie off into the jungle and see a friendly aircraft to save them, we reach the moment of disconnection. Savage’s Stevie is in no shape to board the chopper and after Nick goes in, De Niro jumps down to save his friend. This one action leads each character down a path they cannot turn away from. Michael knows his friend Nick is safely away and that he can bring Stevie to safety, Stevie realizes the utter futility of his situation and the lack of courage to have pulled through without Michael, and Nick knows nothing of his friends, but the abandonment of being saved and letting them be lost down in the trenches.
Stevie’s disillusion, Michael’s strength of character, and Nick’s sense of abandoning those he loved will drive them throughout the rest of the epic three-hour film. The acting is riveting and the emotion palpable. What of their travails can be spoken of upon returning home, shells of the men they were before? The war has scarred them to the point where they are distant to their friends who wish to shower them with love that they don’t think they can share anymore. De Niro’s second hunt towards the end of the film perfectly shows his evolution, once he stands face to face with his tracked buck and realizes what he must do. De Niro is entrancing throughout and gives one of the greatest performances of his career. He is the tough guy, older brother to his friends who must sacrifice his own happiness for those he loves.
Besides the three main actors, the supporting cast holds true throughout. The late great John Cazale, who died shortly after filming completed of bone cancer, plays the friend whose attitude can be forgiven in the beginning, but not post-war, where he becomes childish and unlearned in the real value of life. A late confrontation with De Niro is a powerful scene showing the huge distance Vietnam has put between those who went and those who stayed. Dzundza is a giant teddy-bear of a man constantly shown with an infectious smile and good-natured life. Meryl Streep is top-notch, as always, playing the woman loved by both Nick and Michael. Her photo becomes the main crux of the film when De Niro’s glimpse of it tells him he must go back home after he made sure his friends were out of the line of fire and Walken’s glimpse just reminds him of those he thinks he left behind and seals his decision to never return to America. Christopher Walken is by far the showstopper. His slow and believable descent into hell is heartwrenching to watch. What once was a fun-loving man, looking to marriage upon return home, becomes a broken vessel with no reason to live. The climax of he and De Niro sitting across from each other in one last game of Russian Roulette will be ingrained in your mind forever.