The Deer Hunter(Universal Home Video, 9.6.2005)
Though I'm a fan of a few of his later films, like 1985's Year of The Dragon, Michael Cimino never again came close to the deft and assured touch he lent on The Deer Hunter. He never again made a film so risky and cinematic. To break it down, the film examines the effect of the Vietnam war on a group of blue-collar friends in the Russian-immigrant enclave of Clairton, Pennsylvania. Michael, Stevie, and Nick -- played by Robert De Niro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken respectively -- are headed to Vietnam together, but not before Stevie marries.
The first hour is dedicated to Stevie's wedding and Cimino's sense of detail and character-immersion at first seems exhausting, but it lends a real feel of authenticity that eventually becomes hypnotic. After Stevie's wedding, Michael, Nick, and friends head into the mountains and hunt some deer. There is something close to a Darwinian statement Cimino seems to be making with Michael's character. He is capable, no-nonsense, and you get the feeling he is the only guy who is truly going to be prepared heading into Vietnam. This is easily one of De Niro's most fascinating characters. His only genuine connection seems to be his relationship with Nick and his infatuation with Nick's girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep, excellent in one of her early performances).
Cimino bluntly cuts to Vietnam. The three friends conveniently bump into each other, but this is not a film about plot or even about the Vietnam war really (don't look for any historical lessons). It's about the characters and the effect war has on them. The three friends are taken captive and, most disturbingly, the prisoners are forced to play Russian roulette by their captors. You know, so they can gamble and who gets to keep their brains.
Finally, the film comes back home and it's a solemn return. We see the effects the war has on our characters and, when they collide in as intense a climax as there is, you also get some of De Niro's best moments as an actor. Walken deservedly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Consider the scene where an Army doctor asks a severely traumatized Nick what his parents' names are. His breakdown is a mixture of confusion and sorrow as he just barely registers his mother's name. John Savage gives the performance of his career. Good support also comes from George Dzundza and the late John Cazale in his last performance.
Cimino's film is a complete work. The DVD...not as much. I really would have liked a documentary and some interviews with the cast. Really, there are only four special features on these two discs. But the picture and sound is so damn good, I hardly care. I have never seen the film look this gorgeous. It was almost like watching the film again for the first time, that's how good it is.
There is a decent commentary track by Vilmos Zsigmond that is assisted by Bob Fisher who dutifully guides Zsigmond through topics for discussion. Zsigmond relates how he asked Michael Cimino if he was sure the singing of "God Bless America" at the end wasn't too corny. Cimino's response to Zsigmond was that not only would it not be corny, it would be one of the most memorable moments of the film. He was right. Cimino clearly had the confidence and intelligence to do justice to his vision.
We also get some interesting production notes, the film's trailer, and some nifty extended/deleted takes from the Vietnam sequence. Overall, a solid disc that could have and should have received even better treatment. But I can't stress enough what a great film this is and how beautiful it looks and sounds. -- Andre Rivas