The seventies were an interesting time for American cinema. A number of circumstances came together including access to drugs, crumbling studio systems, foreign and classic cinema as a vital way for movie theaters to make money, and the emerging popularity of film schools to make upstarts like Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Allen, and Altman have fruitful and successful careers. Never before did a film like the Taxi Driver (about a deranged man who drives a taxi and sees himself as a vigilante) become a success. Producers were throwing money at these whippersnappers hoping they will save their studios with their complicated stories, dark heroes and stark visual aesthetics. This is how Michael Cimino was able to make such a personal, dark and long film. He was given free rein and it paid off for the producers and the studio backing him. It won the Best Picture Oscar for 1978 along with piles of other awards and was a box office smash. It is still cited today as a major influence on most war films, but does it hold up?
For me (and this is my personal blog and therefore I can only express my own feelings and not anyone else’s) the film does not hold up in the way I was expecting it too. Before you track me down and shoot me with your excellent marksmen skills you Deer Hunter fans, let me explain myself. I have a major problem with the switch from gritty realism (the plant, the relationships at the bar and at the wedding reception, the war scenes in Vietnam) to melodrama (which mainly means the whole Russian Roulette thing). It feels so forced to me. I feel like they did not have to experience something so blatantly over the top in order to feel damaged psychologically by the war. You could just show scenes of fighting, killing women and children, seeing your fellow fighters die and this would be plenty of material for someone to go crazy experiencing. I feel like the Russian Roulette angle though may happen in real life just perpetrates that the Vietnamese were deranged and therefore should be stopped by the morally upright Americans. There is not one sympathetic Vietnamese character either from the south or the north in this film. This may seem like a minor detail in such a sweeping movie, but the whole film hinges on these characters’ experience in Vietnam and maybe giving the Vietnamese some humanity would at least explain why they are obsessed with such a violent betting game.
I feel like this film in places feels bloated and pretentious. For instance that wedding reception was painfully long. The only three reasons that this sequence exists is to illustrate that these men are from recent immigrated families, they like to get drunk and Robert de Niro’s character has a crush on his best friend’s girl. All of these things were made explicit in earlier more put together sequences. I seriously almost fast forwarded through this sequence. I felt like Cimino was just in love with his ability to create boring dialogue and force multiple groups of people to do complicated dances. This film is could easily have been a half hour shorter and made the same impact. Did we need scene after scene of Robert de Niro’s character acting awkward after his return from Vietnam? The hunting scene and the scene where he sees his friends putting together a welcome back party would have been excellent and his anxiety would have felt more heightened.
I must not go any further without acknowledging that all of the performances were amazing. Christopher Walken acting normal (for the first half at least) is fascinating in itself. I could watch seventies era Robert de Niro all day everyday. His actions are so subtle, his embodiment of his character so complete that I would have a hard time believing that he had never hunted before. Even his delivery of grandstanding speeches (such as the one shot speech which I have heard again and again without realizing that it was from this film… I have hunters in my family.) that would feel forced and annoying in anyone else’s hands feels right for his character. Of course it is always a pleasure to watch Meryl Streep perform and although you can tell from John Cazale’s body language that he was sick he still puts in such an odd performance that is hard not to be drawn to him every time he is in the shot. Cimino got lucky with his cast. Each one was and is amazing in their own unique way and can deliver even the most obvious and boring of dialogue (such as the cringe worthy scene outside the bar where John Savage’s character declares his love for his impending wife in such an obvious way) and make it really mean something.
This film represents a common problem in viewing not only films but listening to music of the seventies. The bloated pretentiousness of the creators makes me want to gag sometimes and that might be coloring my view of this film. (In fact I know it probably is) I feel like if Cimino had understood the concept of an edit than he would have made a smarter film. It may come off as cutting for me to write that but I think it is true. He had all the ingredients, his ego just got in the way for him to mix it up just right. It was a hard lesson for Cimino to learn, and learn he did after Heaven’s Gate went down in a horse killing hell fire. The poor guy. He has a lot of talent and I hope that he will be able to get a chance to get a big project again.