Thursday, 25 March 2010

This Is This. This Ain't Something Else. This Is This.

Crikey (good morning, Australia!), talk about taking a tumble. How do you go from a five time Oscar winning film to what was derided as an enormous flop that pretty much brought down a studio? I don't know, but the answer probably lies somewhere within Michael Cimino's brain.

Don't worry, I'm not going to talk about Heaven's Gate, his tragic opus - I haven't seen it, though there is a part of me that wants to. So I will eventually. But today we're here to talk about The Deer Hunter, his masterpiece, as it were. I must say, one of my favourite parts of watching films from, oh, probably about the 1960s to the 1980s is watching the opening credits to see where the stars of today appear. Like Dennis Hopper popping us as 'thug' or whatever it was in Rebel Without A Cause. Or here in The Deer Hunter, where Meryl Streep is listed after John Cazale and John Savage (who?) in the opening credits, after the title. Well, I guess this was only her first Oscar nomination out of the 235128475134 she has received, and only for Supporting, so... 

Robert De Niro takes the lead in this Vietnam War drama, playing Michael, leader of sorts among his friends. These friends include Stan (Cazale), Steven (Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken.) They're a small town group of friends, steel workers preparing for Steven's marriage, their heading off to the war, and the hunting trip they're embarking on that evening. Shortly the boys find themselves in the midst of the brutal war, held captive, dropped in rivers, mentally and physically tortured - everything you have heard about the war. In fact, I'm sure it's nothing compared to what you have heard, but it's vicious nonetheless. Steven loses both of his legs and ends up in a military hospital back in the US, barely coping and keeping away from his wife; Nick goes mental and remains in Saigon, playing Russian Roulette for money, which he sends to Steven in hospital; Michael is the only one who seems relatively unscathed, though the trauma of what has happened to his friends and his promise not to leave Vietnam without Nick haunt him into returning, where he finds Nick seriously deranged, wracked with guilt and a complete sense of loss brought about by his conviction that he was the only one of his friends to survive. 

It's a long and haunting film, with much of it set in and after the Vietnam war, which doesn't make for easy viewing. The performances are uniformly terrific. De Niro holds his cards close to his chest but plays them at the perfect moment. Walken especially is incredibly haunting, his happy-go-lucky fun-filled character turning so severely to something so remote and removed so very convincingly. He deserved his Oscar for this film. Streep, as Nick's girlfriend kept completely in the dark as to what has happened to him, is terrific in an early role, quite small, torn between her love for her fiancee and the comfort of Michael's arms.

The script, by Deric Washburn with a bunch of others on story duty, is studied and measured, perfectly paced and pitched along the way. Cimino gives the film plenty of room to breath, allowing for a harrowing journey through the psychology of the characters and an insight into the devastating effects of war on those it spits out at the other end. A fairly typical score from Stanley Myers is worked into brilliant sound design to work your emotions in a standard but effective way. It all combines to a solid three hours of hard-going but worthwhile cinema. 5 stars.

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