Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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The Deer Hunter

Film #192

THE PLOT

An in-depth examination of the way that the Vietnam war affects the lives of people in a small industrial town in the USA.

Year 1, Day 189

BEFORE: Wrapping up this mini war chain within Oscar month is The Deer Hunter. Nominated for nine Academy Awards and winning five including Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), this film checks off the Vietnam war on the list of conflicts covered this past week.

AFTER: There are two major areas that I would like to cover with The Deer Hunter: attention and having a message.

Let’s start with attention. The Deer Hunter is another lengthy film clocking in at 182 minutes but unlike Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t warrant the long runtime. Take for example the wedding at the beginning of the film which serves as the first act: introducing Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) among others and what their lives are like in the United States. As a first act it’s well structured but at one hour it’s just way too long. There’s only so many shots of a wedding you can show before you get the point - these people are happy but they’re also nervous about their upcoming deployment in Vietnam. The remainder of the film also seems unnecessarily long. It’s nice to see details about characters and the environment but my mind starts to wander, that’s probably a sign you can quicken the pace a bit.

The saving grace of the film was the scenes of Russian roulette. For those who don’t know, you can read all about this deadly game of chance over at Wikipedia. If it wasn’t for these scenes in the film, I would have lost interest very quickly and wouldn’t have cared about trying to get it back later on in the film. The first game of Russian roulette takes place early on in the second act, right after the wedding. The three men are taken captive by Vietnamese and forced to play. This scene, along with the subsequent games, is some of the most terrifying and suspenseful visuals in cinema. It’s probably true about seeing any Russian roulette game but the wonderful acting by De Niro and Walken really made this film special. By having this right after the wedding, my quickly disappearing attention was instantly regained and I was fully invested in the film.

And that brings me to my second point about films that have a message or try to say something. The Deer Hunter isn’t, and doesn’t try to be, a blockbuster film that you sit back and relax for. It’s purpose is in the IMDb plot description above, “An in-depth examination of the… Vietnam war.” In a way it’s kind of like a documentary except that it’s very obviously using fictional characters, settings, and actions. My big problem with the film and the reason my interest waned very quickly was I didn’t see it. All I saw were examples of what would happen in that time period with those circumstances. People’s feelings at weddings, reactions to news from the war, celebrations for homecomings. But it was lacking what makes something like this very interesting, the message the director is trying to impart through these images. What is it the director wants to say about this. It wasn’t until the very end in the last scene that everything clicked and made sense. I understood the message and the purpose of the film.

But all that was too little, too late. The Deer Hunter has many great things about it including intense games of Russian roulette and wonderful performances by De Niro and Walken. (Side note: I think De Niro’s performance was much better than Walken’s winning performance, but they were up for two different categories.) But the film is unnecessarily long and takes way too long to deliver on the entire purpose of the film which makes for some boring and uninteresting moments.

RATING: 3 out of 5