Many years ago I read a review of The Deer Hunter in which the author said that the film is great up until the point where the three main characters get separated on the river in Vietnam. From then on, the film meanders until it comes to a muddled conclusion. I can’t remember where I read that review, so I unfortunately can’t cite it. It was more than 10 years ago, which is ancient history in the Internet age.
I disagree with that assessment of The Deer Hunter. All of the boring and meandering moments become brilliant on repeated watches. They can’t be appreciated in a single viewing because they don’t seem important until you see the final payoff for everything.
If you haven’t seen the film in a while, go back and watch it to see what I mean.
The whole wedding scene is not only introducing the audience to normal life for these characters, but it’s also subtly laying the groundwork for everything we’re going to see later on. Michael, Nick, and Steven are blue-collar steelworkers in Pennsylvania who are just about to go to war in Vietnam after Steven gets back from his honeymoon. This is their last time to be together as just regular old buddies, but all sorts of things portend doom for them. They come across a despondent green beret who seems to have given up on any kind of pleasure after the horrors he’s seen in combat. These three will soon share his sentiments. Steven’s bride spills two tiny drops of wine as she drinks from a ceremonial goblet that’s supposed to signify good luck if they can drink every drop. Nick proposes to his girlfriend even as she’s struggling to deal with her father’s physical abuse.
It’s all very melancholy for what is supposed to be a celebration. And in hindsight, we see that this is the last time any of these people would be able to put a happy face on their problems.
The Hunting Trip
Michael admits to Nick that he would prefer to hunt alone if Nick didn’t come with him. They’re going on one last deer hunt before being shipped off to Vietnam. Michael only ever wants to kill a deer with one shot because he feels anything else is sloppy. So he’s careful not to take a shot until he has a perfect opportunity. There’s almost an Abraham-and-Isaac vibe to the proceedings as he scurries along the mountainside, methodically stalking his prey. We spent time in a traditional church at the wedding, but to Michael this is the holiest place in the world. The mountain is a sacred place where he can go to be himself. The deer is his innocence. Killing it in one shot is a sign to himself that he is virtuous and good on his own terms, even if no one else understands him.
This scene is revisited when Michael goes on one more hunting trip after returning from Vietnam. Even when he’s back in his element, he’s a changed man, and he can’t see the world the same way he used to. Nick is no longer with him, so he keeps his distance from his other friends. He gets a perfect shot at a deer after struggling to keep up with it, but he can’t make himself kill it. He shoots wild rather than take an innocent life for sport. He has learned to value life more than he used to. He can’t restore his lost innocence, but the best he can do is to let it go in peace.
Steven’s Physical Scars
When Steven falls off a helicopter in Vietnam and lands in a river, he breaks both of his legs. It’s pretty brutal, but Michael is able to carry him to a hospital, so we assume he’s going to be all right. It’s only after a long time has gone by that we finally get to see him again and we’re shocked to learn that he had to have both of his legs amputated, and now he’s physically and emotionally crippled. He refuses to make an effort to go home to his wife and young son. He doesn’t feel worthy to go back to them in his broken state. So Michael has to force him to leave the veterans’ hospital and go home. He is responsible for pushing Steven to make it into and out of a hospital. He saved his life and hopefully saved his soul in the end.
Nick’s Emotional Scars
We spend an abnormally long amount of time alone with Nick after he’s separated from Michael and Steven. We get to see him sullenly recovering from a gunshot wound in an Army hospital. A medical professional asks if his last name, Chevotarevich, is Russian and he responds, “No, it’s American.” Then he begins to place a call back home to his fiancé in Pennsylvania, but he hangs up before he’s put through. Both of these are significant because the first moment makes him feel alienated from his home country. And his failed call is important because later his fiancé completely loses heart as she points out that he never even called her. But we know that he tried, though he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He becomes completely numb to all humanity as he watches a couple of nameless men compete in a game of Russian roulette. This is the point at which he gives up on life. He’s been so traumatized by the war that he doesn’t feel worthy of going back home. Just like Steven, who didn’t want to go home to his wife and child, Nick refuses to return to his fiancé because he doesn’t want her to see what he has become. He doesn’t even want to try and fight for his happiness because he knows that even if he goes back home to Pennsylvania, he’ll never be able to return to the man he was.
After spending so much time with Nick, we really feel his absence for the next long stretch of the film. We don’t see or hear anything from him the whole time we’re with Michael back in Pennsylvania. This makes the scenes with him even more poignant on reflection.
Michael’s Mental Scars
Michael actually possesses the inner strength to face the torture of returning home. He suffers greatly inside, but he’s able to bear it. However, he is ashamed when he sees that his friends and loved ones are waiting for him at his house, ready to throw him a welcome party. He doesn’t feel like celebrating after all the things he’s witnessed, so he avoids coming home until almost everybody is gone. Then he sneaks in through the back door. He feels horrible about being the only one of the three friends to come back from Vietnam physically unscathed. He tries to reconnect with his other friends on a deer-hunting trip, but he finds himself drifting farther and farther away from them. He gets fed up with the antics of one of his trigger-happy friends and points a revolver loaded with a single bullet at his head. He pulls the trigger and everyone hears the click of an empty chamber. They’re all terrified that Michael could have just killed his own friend, but the worst is yet to come when Michael confronts his other friend Nick back in Vietnam and plays Russian roulette with him one last fateful time.
Michael goes bowling with his friends to try to relive happier times, but that doesn’t help, either. One of his friends literally gets into a pinch when he recklessly jumps under an automated pinsetter to grab his bowling ball, and Michael and the rest of his friends have to use a jack to get him out. This seems to remind Michael that he needs to go find his friends Steven and Nick and bring them home from a veterans’ hospital and Vietnam, respectively. They’re both in a pinch, and only he can understand and rescue them.
Bringing It Home
The genius of The Deer Hunter is that it’s filled with seemingly mundane events that are only significant in retrospect. Even great films like, The Shawshank Redemption and The Sixth Sense, can’t help but go back and show earlier events that you thought held no significance, and make sure you understand just how important they really were. But The Deer Hunter doesn’t do that. It never goes back and shows a scene that’s already passed. There’s no way to restore a sense of innocence once it’s lost. All the joyful characters at the start are transformed into quiet, reserved, and scarred people by the end, and we get to see every step of their transformation. But we don’t realize we’re seeing it until it’s already happened.
The film offers three different experiences of life after going to war. The reason it feels like it meanders after the river scene is because it’s following the course of three broken people’s lives as they struggle and fail to put the pieces of their existence back together. They are unable to go back to the lives they once had, so they’re forced to make difficult choices and find some solace in each other. From beginning to end, The Deer Hunter tells a mesmerizing tale that can only be fully appreciated on multiple viewings.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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