In Deric Washburn’s original script for The Deer Hunter, the wedding scene was ten pages long. That translates to maybe fifteen minutes of screen time, at most. But director Michael Cimino never saw it that way. One of the great flexes of 1970s American cinema, the whole first third of Cimino’s troubling, three-hour epic gives us an unhurried depiction of working class life and the social rituals of a Russian immigrant community in the Pennsylvania rust belt. It’s a mini-masterpiece of lunchpail Americana that could very well work as a standalone movie of its own, introducing us to a crew of hard-drinking steel workers getting ready for the nuptials of their dim-bulb buddy Steve (John Savage). Led by Robert De Niro’s brusque, taciturn Michael and Christopher Walken’s sweetly angelic Nick, the gang of boisterous pals spends the wedding weekend clowning around, hunting bucks and knocking back about a thousand Rolling Rocks. But there’s an air of anxiety to the proceedings. On Monday morning the three men will depart for Vietnam, and nothing will ever be the same.
A story of America’s loss of innocence writ large – and I mean really large – The Deer Hunter is a work of such self-conscious, chest-thumping grandiosity that it’s not difficult to see why the film has fallen out of favor in some circles. Yet it remains impossible to dismiss. There’s something elemental about the movie’s boys’ adventure machismo, a primal force that overpowers Cimino’s more regrettably cartoonish flourishes. A lot of it, I think, has to do with how the film begins. 68 minutes might sound like a ludicrously excessive amount of screen time for a prologue, yet we need to dwell on the day to day details. We need to be able to feel the fabric of these lives before it’s so cruelly ripped away.
Cimino’s name would come to be synonymous with excess. His very next film was Heaven’s Gate, which brought down an entire studio and symbolically drove a stake through the auteur-driven heyday of ‘70s cinema. The Deer Hunter is every bit as excessive as the notorious four-hour Western that followed; it just happened to connect. It luxuriates in the wedding sequence, a triumph of production design shot almost like a documentary, following the actors through seemingly endless ad-libs and improvisations. Nothing feels staged for the benefit of the camera, save for the ominous foreshadowing of blood red wine dripping onto a white bridal gown. The rest feels overheard, caught on the fly, like when we keep catching De Niro’s Michael sneaking too-long looks at his buddy’s girl (Meryl Streep).
Streep famously didn’t think much of the role, but took it anyway to spend time with her boyfriend, the great actor John Cazale, who was suffering from terminal cancer during the shoot. (It was to be his last film.) Cazale’s in Fredo mode again as Stanley, the hapless, skirt-chasing loser of the crew who carries around a pistol to try and pretend he’s a tough guy. Everything about him rubs De Niro’s stoic Michael the wrong way. As written, Michael is a fairly ridiculous character – a soulful hunter-philosopher and embodiment of masculine virtue who just so happens to have the same first name as the filmmaker. Yet as played by De Niro, he’s a man devoid of swagger, a prisoner of his principles. The Deer Hunter isn’t often mentioned among De Niro’s best performances, as it contains none of his physical fireworks. But it should be. The character is all in his eyes, past the bushy beard he tries to hide behind.
Walken’s unique physicality has never been used to more delicate ends. One look at the graceful Nick on the dance floor, or even shaking his hips to the jukebox at the bar, and you know he’s not going to come home okay. There’s something ethereal about him, even child-like. We’re emotionally invested enough in these characters to accept the absurdity of the underground Russian Roulette league, the invention of an earlier screenplay by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker from which Cimino and Washburn plucked their central metaphor. It’s an idea too silly for a movie this serious, one that would be more at home in Cimino’s script for the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force that he worked on with John Milius. But so powerful are the scenes and staging that you can’t help but get swept up in the pulpy grandeur all the same.
Still, the heart of the film is not in Saigon, but at home. It’s on the Main Street where the Russian Orthodox church’s onion domes loom large over the local supermarket. It’s in the greasy spoon diners and unassuming homes that other Hollywood films can’t seem to show without an air of condescension. Maybe the most unsung performance in the picture is by Chuck Aspegren as the boys’ bearish buddy Axel. A foreman for U.S. Steel, Aspegren was originally hired as a technical advisor, but Cimino and De Niro liked him so much they asked him to join the cast. He’s effortlessly authentic, holding his own amid a roster of screen legends. Aspegren never acted again. But I like to think Axel is still out there somewhere, having a Rolling Rock.
“The Deer Hunter” is streaming on Netflix.