Cimino’s notoriety for being a difficult collaborator and, of course, the studio-bankrupting debacle of his 1980 follow-up Heaven’s Gate are known well enough. But – however temporarily – with The Deer Hunter, he proved himself every bit the equal of his critically esteemed “New Hollywood” peers. His Best Director award was well-deserved.
Cimino’s efforts were matched in every area behind and in front of the camera. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography brings vibrant, poetic life to the grit of industrial small-town America, the natural splendor of the mountaintop hunting retreat, even the hellish chaos of the fall of Saigon. Peter Zinner’s masterful editing is instrumental in creating the film’s unusual, beguiling rhythm. He places ellipses where lesser movies might think to be ponderous, but he also allows the more intimate scenes to percolate and build toward grand, multilayered accumulations of feeling. Both of them were recognized at the Oscars.
“…brings vibrant, poetic life to the grit of industrial small-town America…”
The Deer Hunter is also an historic acting showcase for a cast that, even in 1978, represented some of the finest talent that America had on offer. Only Walken brought home an Oscar for his performance, as Nick takes the story’s most severe trajectory from vital, virile youth to dead-eyed existential emptiness. He’s never been better, but De Niro and Streep are just as good. Their restrained, unadorned performances suit the salt-of-the-earth milieu perfectly, and their scenes together are charged with longing and regret.
Plenty of room is also left for supporting characters to make an impression. Aspegren, a non-actor and steelworker who De Niro and Walken met while researching their roles, establishes a boisterous, down-home presence and holds his own among future Hollywood royalty. Cazale, conversely, brought perhaps the largest share of talent and experience to the proceedings, in what would tragically be the last role of his short but storied career. He remains an indelible part of a film that he didn’t live long enough to see completed.
Taken as a whole, The Deer Hunter is an anti-war elegy that movingly cherishes community and friendship in the face of humanity’s darkest, most destructive tendencies. Later movies would present more comprehensive and expansive visions of the war – and certainly more grounded portrayals of the opposing side. But, much like the otherwise wildly dissimilar Apocalypse Now, this one endures by following its own idiosyncratic path. It’s a towering American masterpiece, haunting, heartbreaking, and one-of-a-kind.
"…a war movie unlike any other..."