Created: Saturday, 10 February 2007 00:00
Written by Ryan Speck
I'm glad that critics have begun to come out, revising their opinions of The Deer Hunter, because it seems to me a vastly overrated film.
Perhaps it was the era in which it was released and the power of someone actually voicing the blank horror of Vietnam in the public eye, for which is was lauded instead of scorned. The acting is excellent and deserving of the merits it received, but, overall, the movie is something of a scattered mess.
It can't be ignored that the movie opens with an excruciatingly long sequence involving the shotgun wedding of John Savage's character to his pregnant bride in Average Blue Collar Factory Town, Pennsylvania, before he and his two friends, Walken and De Niro, go off to Vietnam. This setup would be intriguing were it not so hurtfully long, chasing the wedding with a hunting trip that does very little to set up the weak gruel of character and pseudo-spiritual atmosphere before suddenly cutting directly to Vietnam, where the characters are... well, in the midst of war. And you have virtually no idea what's happened when it switches again and the three men are captured, held by Vietcong soldiers that force the men to play Russian roulette against each other.
After an escape, the three are picked up by a helicopter, which drops Savage and De Niro into a river, breaking Savage's legs, leaving De Niro to drag him back to civilization through the jungle. By this point, I was having plenty of trouble even paying attention to the choppy bullshit going on, as much as I was interested in following the story.
Soon enough, Walken is in a hospital, barely functioning, De Niro is back in town, and Savage has disappeared. When it reached the point (of course jumping and skipping details again) that Walken hooks up with an odd Frenchman that is involved in some sort of underground Russian roulette competition, I was about ready to quit watching.
De Niro is suddenly home, though we still don't know what the fuck is supposed to be going on, and he's responding badly to his return. After much hanging out and hunting with all the yokel friends that bored me to tears in the first act, instead of using that time to make a fully-formed and coherent story in Vietnam, De Niro tracks down Savage, who's had his legs amputated and is holing up in some hospital.
Somewhere in here I was supposed to follow some detail about Walken, but I was having an unbearable time even bothering to pay attention to the dreary, dull mess. Apparently, Walken's character was still back in Vietnam, jacked up on heroin, and grand champion of the Russian roulette ring. I guess this was revealed before a jump-cut to Vietnam, which I assumed, until the end of the movie, was all just a flashback, especially when it's back to the Frenchman... And they never showed in any intelligible way what happened to Walken, so when it gets to the climactic Russian roulette scene, which I'd of course heard about, I was thoroughly confused.
I'll agree that the movie's end is flat and that the film takes no firm stance on anything. Critical complaint that its stand on anything was unclear is not incorrect. I will assume that, in its most violent sequences, it does imply that Vietnam was a horror to those in it. Other than that, whether it was mocking or showing the quiet dignity of the stuffy, semi-retarded Pennsylvania factory town and its jingoistic, Pollyanna-ish inhabitants remains to be seen. The same goes double for the bland and bizarre ending on the cast's flat rendition of "God Bless America". If it was making a point about the blind complicity in Vietnam, the naivete of America, or if it was just showing a broken but undaunted American pride is all up to interpretation, but, from its presentation, it might as well have represented the lack of barbershop quartets in the Billboard Top 200. I wouldn't know the difference.
Now, given the fact that, despite everything you've probably ever heard, the cobbling together of the story is one of the worst injustices ever set to film, the acting is still excellent. John Savage has an amazing range of emotion and Walken, of course, plays creepy and nuts to the bone. De Niro is as flat and untalented as De Niro ever is, but this is still one of his better performances, despite his seemingly deliberate refusal to ever show a single emotion or act at all. At least there's Ronin, I guess.
If you have three hours to kill, you should probably catch the one hour and forty-five minutes of good movie hidden somewhere in the midst of it, if not just to get all the references made elsewhere.