Andrew Sarris

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

[The Deer Hunter, a] three-hour saga of three Russian-American Pennsylvania steelworkers in and out of Vietnam, turns out to be massively vague, tediously elliptical, and mysteriously hysterical. The script … does not contain a single witty, sharp, or revelatory line of dialogue. As if to compensate for this verbal aridity, the players are encouraged to indulge in interminable wet-eyed sensitivity sessions…. The Deer Hunter thus reflects in its operatic inarticulateness certain tendencies in the supposedly ambitious American films of the past decade, while at the same time it slips in a disturbing subtext for which Cimino alone must held accountable.

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Frankly, I suspect that this film has less to do with Vietnam or even male bonding than it has to do with a particularly devious expression of homosexual panic…. In a sense, The Deer Hunter has thrust the subject upon me by failing to be convincing on the psychological, sociological, or historical surfaces of its narrative. All that is left is Cimino's personal mythology, and therefore a description of The Deer Hunter is in order before we commence with the diagnosis….

There is no feeling of an oppressed proletariat in Cimino's vision of industrial labor. At most there is an intimation of boredom, from which male camaraderie after working hours functions as a boisterous release. Michael and Nick and Steven and Stan and a few other of their buddies surge into a barroom where the Steelers-Eagles games is playing on TV, and there is some palaver about betting on the points. But there is no knowingness or conviction in the way the scene is handled. No one really seems to care whether the Steelers win or lose. The banter is all too self-consciously fleeting and perfunctory, and the atmosphere is already too hot-house actorish for cold beer.

The film spends a whole hour at the Russian Orthodox wedding of Steven and Angela without telling us anything interesting about either the characters or the community….

Because the viewer's mind may start idling during this first hour, the fact that only three young men, all apparently volunteers, are leaving for Vietnam and that one has just been married may seem statistically improbable. But despite all the American flags in view, the spectacle is never condescending or contemptuous. To his credit, Cimino never looks down on his characters or their milieu. The problem is that much of his material emerges as shapeless and undeveloped and, hence, boring.

When Michael and his merry ethnics set off for a deer hunt, the scene seems to be set at last for some sort of classy metaphor for machismo. At the very least one would hope for some inventive interplay among the hitherto opaque characters. All that is provided, however, is a desultory disagreement between Michael and Stan over the borrowing of boots, and a prolonged solo pose by De Niro [who plays Michael] as the Noble Hunter in a setting so idiotically idyllic that one would not be surprised to see Bambi bounding out of the brush. De Niro dispatches his deer in a solitude of such splendor that it would seem the other members of the hunt are just along for the ride. There is some mystical mumbo-jumbo about De Niro's needing only one bullet for the kill. Cimino's tone here is that of a humorless animated cartoon rather than of a nuanced novel.

Vietnam engulfs the screen in the first of Cimino's jolting ellipses, but it is not the Vietnam of American self-flagellation that we have come to know from previous movies in the cycle. Cimino actually shows the VC committing atrocities against both Vietnamese civilians and American prisoners of war. (p. 67)

For Cimino, the VC are brutal simply because war is brutal, and because life itself is brutal. The ideological issues seem to count for little in what explodes on the screen as the ultimate test of one's courage and manhood….

If the Russian roulette episodes are found metaphors they satisfy the irreducibly realistic requirements of the cinema, but if they are merely fictional metaphors they degenerate into immoral and irresponsible fantasies of the artist….

[The] fact that Michael's last name is Vronsky may mean that he is graced or afflicted with a Tolstoyan largeness of spirit. He thinks nothing of intervening boldly in other people's lives. After he discovers that Steven has lost both legs he blithely drags the resisting paraplegic home to his traumatized wife and child. At times Michael so reeks of disinterested do-goodness that he makes the Jon Voight character in Coming Home look like a used-car salesman. And he becomes almost completely magical when he strolls casually through Saigon in civilian clothes in search of his self-destructive buddy on the very night the city is falling.

Far from achieving Tolstoyan heights, however, Cimino fails even to attain a Scorsesian or Coppolian level. The structure of the film is so rickety, and the details so incongruous, that whatever feelings were intended finally peter out in a half-hearted chorus of "God Bless America," again, mercifully free of derision or condescension but hardly transfigured into national poetry. (p. 68)

Andrew Sarris, "Is the Metaphor the Message?" in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), Vol. XXIII, No. 51, December 18, 1978, pp. 67-8.

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