I tend to take it for granted that everyone has seen the cornerstone films from the past – perhaps because most of my friends are big movie lovers – but I know that’s not really the case. And very few current films move me to write about them, let alone give them much thought once the end credits have rolled. I watched The Deer Hunter today. It’s been at least a decade since I’ve last seen it and now it’s stuck back deeply into my head again.
There were two reasons it was on my mind to watch. The first reason is the recent release of the film on Blu-Ray (hey, it’s only $10 bucks on Amazon right now!) – I’ve seen this on VHS, laser disc and standard DVD and this Blu-Ray edition is the first to do justice to Vilmos Zsigmond’s Oscar-nominated cinematography.
The second reason was because I’d recently watched the HBO documentary short I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. Actually I watched it twice because it’s so damned good. (It’s on DVD, find it at Amazon. The bonus features look so good that I might have to buy it eventually.)Who would believe that this was produced by Brett Ratner? (Fortunately he didn’t direct it.) Cazale was in only 5 films. All 5 of those films won the Academy Award for best picture. Godfather 1 & 2, Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter. The documentary does an amazing job in a short time of getting into the craft of acting and explaining just what it was that made Cazale so special. But I digress.
There are so many reasons that The Deer Hunter is a great film. Well, we can start with the cast. Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, George Dzundza, Shirley Stoler. But it’s not just the cast.
And it’s surely not director/co-writer Michael Cimino, who’s almost equally famous for destroying United Artists with his next film, Heaven’s Gate (which, by the way, is much better than people gave it credit for at the time). Okay, I admit, I like his first film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Year of the Dragon is an extremely guilty pleasure. After that, he didn’t do much and none of it was worthwhile.
No, I suspect it’s that “secret sauce” – a coming together of all the right creative elements in the right space and time. And it’s a film very much of its time, the 1970s. It could never be made today, at least not in the same form. The focus is on the characters. The story telling itself is almost jagged, with some very abrupt transitions.
Let’s face it, in the first hour of the 3 hour film, nothing happens (and yet everything happens). You’ve got a western Pennsylvania steel town and a group of friends. They are preparing for a wedding. Then there’s the wedding and the wedding party and then a few of them go out deer hunting. And then BAM! More than one hour in before you get to the Vietnam scenes that are so justly famous.
But despite the intensity of the Russian roulette sequences, it’s that first hour that draws you in, when there’s almost no attention paid to plot. It’s just great actors working together so well that you don’t feel as if you’re watching acting. There’s an honesty here.
And it struck me that it’s so different from most current cinema. Today, all movies are the same: they start with a big bam over the top action sequence because they feel they need to get your attention immediately. Usually after that sequence there will be a title card saying “two weeks earlier” and then the film gallumphs along at a plodding pace until it returns to the action stuff.
The Deer Hunter is different. I think one reason that the second two thirds of the film work as well as it does is because by that point you really care about these people. You don’t care about them because they’re played by big name stars and you’re expected to. You care about them because you know them.
The film rewards patience. And it rewards repeated viewing – as any great film does – because each time you watch it you can focus in on a totally different aspect or actor. It’s multi-layered. It doesn’t spell everything out for you. (Here’s a simplistic example: when De Niro returns to Vietnam and finds Christopher Walken still playing Russian roulette and Walken’s acting damned strange (even for Walken), at one point De Niro pulls the guy’s arm out and it’s filled with hypodermic needle tracks. There’s no conversation around this. There’s no “what the fuck are you doing on heroin man?” dialogue. There are of course more complex examples of this as well.)
The Deer Hunter won 5 Academy Awards (film, directing, editing, sound and supporting actor for Walken) and it’s one of those best picture winners that actually deserved to win. (And it was up against some tough competition that year – Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman.)
Another reason that I liked Deer Hunter so much was because the previous film I watched was Safe House and it was absolute bollocks. I love Denzel Washington. He’s a consistent actor and most of his films are at the very least solid entertainment (even though he does seem unusually attached to working with Tony Scott). This one could mark the moment where his career jumps the proverbial shark. And I say that despite the relatively strong rating it currently has on IMDB (6.9) – I think the 54% on Rotten Tomatoes is much closer to my opinion.
On paper at least, it looked promising. For a Denzel Washington film, it has an unusually strong supporting cast. Ryan Reynolds (who has more screen time than Washington), Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades, Robert Patrick, Liam “Sir Davos Seaworth” Cunningham. The director is Daniel Espinosa – half Chilean, half Swedish and apparently seen as an up-and-comer in Sweden. It’s got the same DP and editor as the Bourne films.
It should be good. It isn’t. About ten minutes in you find out there’s a leak in the CIA and I promise you that anyone who has ever watched a movie at some point in their lives will know who the source of that leak is and after that, it just kind of spins out by the numbers, albeit with some vaguely decent actions scenes. Mostly it’s cardboard characters in predictable situations and the 115 minute running time seems more like 115 hours. Maybe the blame goes to screen writer David Guggenheim – this is his first feature film after one TV film.
Oh well. With lots more rain predicted for this week, looks like I’ll have lots more time to watch movies. I hope there’s gonna be at least a couple of good ones.