Monday, June 28, 2010

Capsule Review - The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter - U.S., 1979

I have a feeling that for many people The Deer Hunter is memorable because of one particular scene. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, for sometimes one scene is all a film needs to get an actor or actress an Oscar nomination or to resonate for a long time with moviegoers. And the scene in The Deer Hunter that probably sticks with viewers the most is indeed incredibly powerful. In it, North Vietnamese soldiers force South Vietnamese and American soldiers to play Russian roulette. When soldiers hesitate or shake with fear, the North Vietnamese commander slaps them and threatens them with certain death if they don’t pull the trigger. We see both fear in the eyes of some of the good soldiers and malicious disregard on the faces of the North Vietnamese soldiers. It’s not hard to see why this scene would be often cited and discussed whenever the film comes up in conversation. The problem is that the writers of The Deer Hunter apparently thought the scene worked so well that they included three other variations of the scene in the film, one of which comes dangerously close to giving the impression that all of Vietnam is filled with adult males who care more about money than human life. To be fair, the first scene is incredibly emotional, for it clearly establishes the nightmare that these soldiers experience in the jungles of Vietnam. However, I have mixed feeling about the three other scenes in which variations or elements of Russian roulette appear. Perhaps the writers of the film went to the well once too often.

The Deer Hunter is about a group of friends and how their lives are changed forever when three of them leave to fight in Vietnam. The first half of the film establishes the depth of their friendship, while the second half shows viewers what three of them experience in Vietnam and how it affects them and the people close to them. The dialogue is a little corny at times, but for the most part, the cast makes it sound more authentic than it probably really is. One of my problems with the film is that there seem to be few consequences in the second half of the film, despite some of the character’s extremely problematic behavior. For example, one character puts a gun to his friend’s head and pulls the trigger (one of the instances of a variety of Russian roulette), yet there’s no hint of a strained relationship later on. Another character seems to have completely shut down mentally, yet apparently all it takes is for her husband to return home for her to be good as new. In addition, two characters start to have a relationship that they both know is not exactly proper, especially considering the entire town knows that one of them is engaged to the other’s best friend. However, their relationships is greeted with either complete indifference or kept so secret that there’s no chance of it creating tension. Where’s the drama in that? Don’t get me wrong, though. The Deer Hunter is a good film, consisting of interesting characters and thoughtful insights on friendship and the effects of war on ordinary people, but in my opinion, it simply never rises beyond that. (on DVD)

3 stars

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