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The Deer Hunter review

Updated on May 4, 2012
5 stars for The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter promotional poster
The Deer Hunter promotional poster

"One Shot" ::Spoilers Included::

Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) is a tale not to be missed. It's bold and it has no restrictions. It maps out the genetic makeup of sadness and the utter tragedy that follows when a nation goes to war. Many anti-war films were made from the end of the Vietnam Conflict and on (Full Metal Jacket, Platoon) but this movie in my opinion is by far the most impacting.
Robert De Niro proves himself to be one of the finest actors in the whole of cinema. His acting backed up with many other incredible performances (including the great Christopher Walken) successfully detail events in one of the most intense and unforgiving films ever made. It's a tale of friendship, sacrifice, family, tradition and love. This is not a war film. It is a carefully laid out 3 hour epic about grief and loss.

Michael in his element
Michael in his element

A finely tuned orchestra of what happens back home when the flame of war is ignited

ACT I: The first hour of The Deer Hunter takes place in a small working class town in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and centers itself on a group of steel workers who are your stereotypical "get drunk after work" best friends. Three men out of the group are about to embark on a journey that will later define the very meaning of heartache. They have volunteered to serve their country and go to Vietnam... The film spends a lot of time building character and showing the bonds that hold the friends together (family, religion, hunting). One of the men, Steven (John Savage), is getting married the day before they depart. He discusses his virginity with one of his friends, this is most likely the director's way of showing his innocence and unpreparedness before going to war. His other two friends Micheal (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are shown as being much more connected than any of the others. The majority of the first act is spent showing the wedding and the party afterwards, happiness. They are young and naive. Their minds are geared towards patriotism and they have no idea about the costs of war. Several events foreshadow what's to come, including a encounter with mentally absent and lost green beret sitting at the bar. When the prideful young men go to raise a toast to the veteran, he raises his glass and says one thing "fuck it"... Michael is definitely the main character of the film and he takes deer hunting incredibly seriously. You could almost say it's his religion. He's obsessed with the idea of killing a deer with one shot from his rifle "You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about". To him is doesn't count otherwise, to him it just isn't pure. They go deer hunting one last time the morning after the wedding and he fulfills his code, one last pure thing before everything loses it's innocence. Nick leaves behind his girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep) and they leave for war.

Forced to play russian roulette, Nick and Michael must escape!
Forced to play russian roulette, Nick and Michael must escape!

Act II

The film abruptly changes pace and shows a much more hardened Michael (who is now a staff sergeant) in a war-torn villiage right as he's awakening from unconciousness as if the first hour of the movie was just a long dream from a longing soul stuck in the pit of hell. A helicopter lands after Michael kill a enemy and two unlikely soldiers step off, Nick and Steven. Very soon after this they are captured and taken to a P.O.W. camp on a river. While there they are forced to play russian roulette with other prisoners and eventually with each other so that the guards may bet on it for entertainment. Steven is forced to play first and as he learns he's about to lose he points the gun up and just grazes his head resulting in brain damage and him being thrown in a cage full of the dead bodies of people who did similar things. Eventually Michael and Nick play each other. Michael convinces the guards to let them play with three bullets instead of one so that they can maybe escape. They successfully do so and get Steven and ride down the river on a fallen tree. They spot a helicopter and try to get on but only Nick and Steven able to grab hold but Steven is forced to let go and brutally injures his legs. Michael leaves Steven on a South Vietnamese military truck and finds his way into a gambling den where men play russian roulette for money. A severely traumatized Nick (he also suffers from amnesia) is led to the same place by a Frenchman to play. Mike doesn't notice him at first until Nick is called to play and causes a riot by breaking the rules of the game. Mike is unable to get his attention and bring him home, something he will never forgive himself for...

A very hollow Nick after being taken advantage of in his fragile mental state. Playing professional russian roulette
A very hollow Nick after being taken advantage of in his fragile mental state. Playing professional russian roulette


Michael comes home to find all his friends have thrown him a party, but he just drives by it, embarrassed. Or maybe ashamed? He's coming home without Nick and it's a hard burden to carry. Mike returns to his home where Nick's girlfriend now lives. They become incredibly close due to the suspected loss of Nick. This brings up questions about friendship because he is stealing his best friends love, but does he have a choice? He is all too familiar with Vietnam perhaps he has just given up all hope of him ever coming home. Michael soon hears word Steven is in a hospital and only his wife knows of his whereabouts. She refuses to tell anybody. He goes to talk to Steven's wife who he finds in an unresponsive zombie-like state to find out where Steven is and after a lot of yelling he gets an answer. He finds him in a wheelchair with serious brain damage. His legs have been amputated and the rest of his life will most likely be spent under the care of others. Michael finds out Nick has been sending money from Vietnam to Steve so Michael goes back to the last place he saw him, the russian roulette tournament. Before he departs he goes deer hunting with his other friends one last time. He's about to take the shot but points his rifle in the air and fires. He has had enough of killing. The deer in the picture though is not a deer it is an elk. Many regard this as a goof or maybe it was put there by the director with reason. It may be to symbolize the thing that he once regarded as holy is now tainted and shattered. Or the elk may be Michael transformed from a deer, changed forever from the costs of war. He finds Nick playing proffesional russian roulette. The fact that he's alive after this long is a stroke of luck. Perhaps despite him losing his memory and becoming a slave to a dangerous game he is lucky, lucky to have a friend like Michael who would risk his life to come back and bring him home. When Mike goes to speak to him he spits in his face and the only way he can get Nick to notice him is to play his sick game. They play and as the bullet hits the chamber and it's Nicks turn to fire he utters one thing "one shot" and shoots himself in the head... A funeral is held for Nick and afterwards the grief strucken group of friends head back to the bar and eat breakfast. The movie ends on an erie note, somebody starts singing God Bless America and everybody joins in. The song is almost sung in a sarcastic manner. A way that says look at what we do for our country's backwards causes, look at the damage done. Never have the words of the song held a stronger meaning...

Final thoughts...

There is a reason The Deer Hunter is regarded as one of the finest films ever made. It's storytelling is on a grand scale that spans continents and the sympathy towards the characters is genuine. At the end you just wish you were there to try and console them. This is not a movie for the faint of heart, but if you do choose to watch it this film will move your heart. Although it's unclear whether or not russian roulette was actually played in P.O.W. camps, as a piece of historical fiction it still has just as much power.


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