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The Deer Hunter

Losing His Religion

The Deer Hunter is a lyrical, slow-to-unfold story of the devastating effects of a tour in Vietnam on three close friends. Mike (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steve (John Savage), steelworkers in a gray, run-down Pennsylvania town, are ordinary, blue-collar guys who’s chief amusements run to drinking and pool. Apparently much alike on the surface, each will be affected in different ways by the war.
Our view of the events of the film are filtered mainly through the eyes of Mike, one of the most strikingly ambiguous characters I’ve even seen captured on film. A quiet loner, he possesses a cool calm that will later explode in Vietnam into an almost desperate pragmatism — he will swing from writing off a friend as a goner not worth wasting limited resources on to later putting own life at risk to save that friend. He’s an acolyte of that particularly American form of religion — hunting. Director Michael Cimino obviously wants us to understand Mike’s reverence for the sport: Ecclesiastical choral music underscores one last hunting trip in the foggy mountains before the guys ship out. And an argument on the day of the hunt between Mike and his weaselly little jerk of a friend, Stan (John Cazale, Fredo in The Godfather) is meant to differentiate the two. Stan has something of a gun fetish and a nasty streak a mile wide — the prospect of a gun in Stan’s hands is frightening. Mike, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have anything to prove about his manliness, and while he may not actually empathize with his prey, he nevertheless doesn’t want to be unnecessarily cruel. “A deer has to be taken with one shot,” he tells Nick. Hunting is a game, a battle of wits between him and his prey.

The horrendous atrocities and nightmare images of Vietnam — and these are some of the most brutal and graphic depictions of war in movie history — take their toll on Mike in less obvious ways than they do on Steve and Nick. Mike seems to harden into a more resolute version of his former self while Nick and Steve crumble, one mentally, the other physically. Even though he was held prisoner by the Vietcong and forced to play Russian roulette, and then later in Saigon encountered the same “game” in a gambling parlor masquerading as entertainment, Mike seems to come through the experience scarred but not defeated as Nick and Steve are. The war’s true effect on him is not revealed until his first postwar hunting trip — he can’t shoot a buck that’s right in his gunsights. His personal “one shot” game, which he had elevated into his own religion, has been taken from him.

Neither DeNiro, in perhaps his best performance yet, nor Cimino offer much in the way of commentary on whether Mike’s loss is a good thing, as many people would advocate. The ironic rendition of “God Bless America” at the film’s tragic end is perhaps as close to a verdict as we can find.

Best Picture 1978
AFI 100: #79

unforgettable movie moment:
Mike and Nick play an intensely slow game of Russian roulette — with three bullets in the gun — for their Vietcong captors.

previous Best Picture:
1977: Annie Hall
next Best Picture:
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer

previous AFI 100 film:
78: Rocky
next AFI 100 film:
80: The Wild Bunch


MPAA: rated R

viewed at home on a small screen

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