The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter is a 1978 coming-of-age film that centers around a group of friends from working class Pennsylvania who all enlist in the military during the Vietnam War. They're young, energetic, and ready to face an adventure that in a lot of ways I think they envision as something that will be similar to the hunting trips they often take together. Little do they know, however, that Vietnam is not a whole lot of damn fun.
The most important thing about this film is holy hell the cast. Robert DeNiro stars as Michael, the stable but isolated heart at the center of the film. He has a presence that is warm yet somehow distant, creating a role that feels very different from other films he has worked on. Side note: not that it matters, but this very well could be DeNiro at his most attractive.
Then there's an impossibly young and fragile Christopher Walken, who serves as the link between Mike and the rest of their friends. He understands Mike in a way that no one else seems to be able to, but lacks the strength of mind that sees Mike through the war relatively unscathed.
We also have the criminally underrated John Savage as Steven, a sensitive man whose wedding takes up the first third or so of the film. Taking into account his marital state and the traditional outcome for "domesticated" men in combat films (hint: they usually die, because love = weakness), we can therefore extrapolate that he is about to have a very unpleasant war.
And although he occupies a smaller role in the film, John Cazale puts in one of the performances of his tragically short career as Stan, one of the more contrary members of the group of friends who ends up staying at home rather than enlisting in the army. Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer before they began filming, and as a result they shot all of his towards the beginning of the film. I can only imagine that this must have lent a macabre feel to a film that already explores death in complicated ways. Sadly, he died before the film was finished.
Also, Meryl Streep is here. In a somewhat underdeveloped yet still Oscar nominated role as the girl who is left behind while the boys go off to war.
Outside of these Hollywood stars, the biggest character in the film by far is the game of Russian Roulette. As prisoners of war, the men are kept in a cage and forced to play the brutally violent game against each other. This creates some of the most powerful moments in the film -- every scene Russian Roulette features in is so tightly edited and well-acted that you watch it almost forgetting to breathe. In addition to creating a series of remarkably tense scenes throughout the film, Russian Roulette serves as a representation of the senseless death and lack of value placed on human life during the Vietnam War.
Because make no mistake, despite the fact that all the boys are pretty excited to be going off to war, this film is very much in the late 1970s vein of expressing rage, confusion, and disillusionment about Vietnam. When Mike returns home, he feels incredibly out of sync with all of the friends he left behind, who have for the most part carried on the way they always have and expect him to be able to pick up with his life as though nothing has changed.
Towards the end of the film, the old group of friends are gathered around a table, singing a very subdued rendition of God Bless America. Although on the face of it, the song is patriotic, there's an incredibly bittersweet tone to it, as though they're just going through the motions, and a sense of having given too much for their country without even knowing what they were doing. This ironic, disenchanted patriotism present throughout the film caused a great deal of controversy when it was first released, as many considered it anti-American. Nonetheless, The Deer Hunter remains a thoughtful, unsentimental glimpse at the horrors of the Vietnam War and the haunting effect it had on its survivors.