The Deer Hunter (1978) – or – This is this.

After watching Apocalypse Now, the same friend who suggested that film recommended The Deer Hunter. In a very odd way, the two films have some similar ideas but portray them in two very different ways.

The Deer Hunter is the story of six friends, three of whom are about to go to Vietnam, and how the war affects their lives. They all live in a small town, working at the local steel mill. Steven (John Savage) is getting married to the recently pregnant Angela (Rutanya Alda) just days before shipping out to Vietnam. Nick (Christopher Walken) and Michael (Robert De Niro) are his two friends who are also headed to Vietnam. Stan (John Cazale), Axel (Chuck Aspegren) and John (George Dzundza) are the only ones of the group staying behind. While not all of the men will be going to Vietnam, the war still affects all their lives.

For a film that doesn’t seem to have much going on, there’s so much that is still happening. It’s the looks the friends share, their attitudes, or the things they don’t say that tell the story. With a 3 hour running time, there is a considerable amount of time spent setting up the relationships of the friends during Steven’s wedding. If you’re paying attention, you’ll learn everything you’ll need to know. It’s this first hour that really explains the rest of the film. It goes beyond the typical setup of most films, building characters that are real instead of just offering us their motivations. It tends to drag a bit, and you have to be willing to watch and absorb, but it really starts to pay off when Michael, Steven, and Nick go to Vietnam.

The friends are very close before the war changes their lives.

Where Apocalypse Now offered an almost hallucinatory look at Vietnam, The Deer Hunter seems disturbingly realistic. The end result is pretty much the same though. Not everyone is leaving the war mentally stable. This also happens to be the part of the film that sets off the most famous moments involving some games of Russian roulette. It’s actually a smaller part of the film, but it has the greatest impact on all the storylines. Our earlier experiences with the characters give us the insight for their actions in Vietnam, and also how they deal with what happens. Michael is the one who is the least affected. Early in the film he’s also the one that seems the most disconnected from everyone. It’s those scenes that seemed to drag that are now becoming so important to our understanding.

The Russian roulette scenes are some of the most famous in the film, and also some of the most tense.

This was the first time I had watched this film, so I don’t want to go and ruin too much of the story for others. I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there who haven’t seen it yet, and it should be moved up to the top of your ‘to watch’ lists. The Deer Hunter certainly isn’t one of those films you can just throw on though. It can frequently be tedious, and seems to makes little sense at other times, but you have to see the bigger picture. Like a great mystery where each little piece adds to the grand reveal, The Deer Hunter offers subtle pieces of characters to form the entire puzzle. If you’re willing to invest the time, this film is sure to please.

Under the marquee – Will

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