by Frank Rich
Mere sex and violence are not enough to make films shocking any more.
Truly shocking movies are those that use sex and violence to push the audience to some new and uncharted psychological frontier. That is what happened in Last Tango in Paris, where Bertolucci used raunchy sex to challenge the conventions of romantic love; it is also what happened in The Godfather, where Coppola used gore to undermine the sanctities of the American family. Though imperfect, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is as powerful as those bombshells of the early ’70s. This excruciatingly violent, three-hour Viet Nam saga demolishes the moral and ideological cliches of an era: it shoves the audience into hell and leaves it stranded without a map.
Such is Cimino’s fresh perspective that The Deer Hunter should be an equally disorienting experience for hawks and doves. This is the first movie about Viet Nam to free itself from all political cant. It contains no antiwar characters at all; its prowar characters are apolitical foot soldiers, not fire-breathing gook killers. The film is as far removed from Coming Home as it is from The Green Berets. Cimino has attempted to embrace all the tragic contradictions of the U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia.
Those contradictions are embodied by the movie’s two principal characters, Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken), steel-mill workers from Clairton, Pa., who go off unquestioningly to fight for their country. In the film’s first hour, set at home, Cimino presents his buddies sympathetically as average men with traditional values: their lives are defined by work, family, church and a love of sport. What happens subsequently to Michael and Nick in Viet Nam is a paradigm of what happened to the U.S.
Tested by an insane war, the good old American values become warped. Michael proves a hero, but the emptiness of his heroism leaves him dissociated from ordinary life when he returns home. Nick succumbs to madness and drugs. The two pals are Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale and Chillingworth gone berserk. One man’s strong will to survive becomes the other’s will to commit suicide; a nation’s manly mission turns into a self-inflicted wound. The director leaves the assignment of blame to historians.
Cimino, 37, broke into movies as a writer for Clint Eastwood. After directing the promising Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, he spent four years on various scripts before joining forces with De Niro on The Deer Hunter. Here Cimino creates a portrait of the war that beggars logic and is boundless in terror. An early Viet Nam sequence, in which imprisoned Americans are forced to play Russian roulette by their Viet Cong captors, is one of the most gut-wrenching ever. With Peter Zinner’s virtuoso editing, an agonizing sound track and Vilmos Zsigmond’s fiery cinematography, Cimino creates a beastly carnival of death even before brains are splattered across the screen. His portrait of South Viet Nam, from the infernal chaos of Highway One to the noisy decadence of Saigon, is no less harrowing. Throughout the film, Cimino draws visual parallels be tween the grimy blue-collar town of Clairton and the mess America created in Asia, until finally America and Viet Nam seem to share a single bastard culture. This surreal device reaches brilliant fruition when the film re-creates the fall of Saigon: in the holocaust the city starts to resemble a Western ghost town.
Perhaps Cimino’s boldest move is the use of Russian roulette as a recurrent image. The game that we first see as a Viet Cong torture later shows up as a sport conducted by wagering South Vietnamese in smoky Saigon back rooms. Besides serving as an expressionistic picture of the capital’s profiteers, the roulette game becomes a metaphor for a war that blurred the lines between bravery and cruelty, friends and enemies, sanity and madness. Unfortunately, other conceits in The Deer Hunter damage the film. A first-hour wedding ceremony, designed to establish the tribal rites of Clairton, is absurdly repetitive. The portentous sequences of the men hunting deer back home turn a literary device into a crutch.
There can be no quarrel about the acting. De Niro, Walken, John Savage, as an other Clairton pal who goes to war, and Meryl Streep, as a woman left behind, are all top actors in extraordinary form.
But the film’s ending, in which the major characters spontaneously sing God Bless America at a funeral breakfast, may give audiences some pause. The moment is powerful, all right, but does one laugh or cry? It is hard to do either. Like the Viet Nam War itself, The Deer Hunter unleashes a multitude of passions but refuses to provide the catharsis that redeems the pain.
Time, December 18, 1978, p. 86