A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino's 183-minute, 1978 epic, uses extreme violence to underscore the brutality of war and men's best and worst tendencies. The lives of three great friends are ruined when the Pennsylvania steelworkers join the army, see hideous combat in Vietnam, and suffer post-traumatic stress. The graphic violence and depiction of psychological trauma are not for kids. Women and children are deliberately killed by soldiers. Prisoners are tortured and, most famously, forced to play Russian Roulette for the amusement of captors gambling on the outcomes. Several men shoot themselves in the head. War trauma sends some of them even deeper into a netherworld of violence and, in at least one case, drug addiction. A drunk man who has stripped off his clothes is seen nude from far in the dark. The language is coarse: "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," "p---y," "bitch," "bastard," and "faggot." Men drink shots and beers with their breakfast. Drunk driving is depicted. The movie was a critical success, won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and was designated number 79 on the American Film Institute's list, "100 Greatest Movies." The commentary on violence, war, survival, and friendship may be lost on younger viewers amid the horror and violence.
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What's the story?
THE DEER HUNTER achieved iconic status for its ambitious portrayal of the brutality of war and the broken friends who survive it. Three Russian-American friends (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) leave their steel mill jobs to enlist in the army. The weekend before they leave they go deer hunting and one gets married to his pregnant girlfriend in an elaborate wedding, followed by a long drunken party. In war, all three are wounded, one in battle and others during an escape from their captors. One heroically saves them all, only to later learn that in some sense his two friends were beyond saving because of the trauma they experienced during the war.
Is it any good?
This movie is both breathtakingly moving and at times a disappointingly self-indulgent and over-ambitious work of cinematic art. It undeniably contains sequences of brilliance, but it also falters and meanders, crying out for a far more ruthless editor. Long deer hunting scenes -- reverent shots of misted mountains and drunk men with guns set against a score of glum hymns -- feel like so much hokey romanticization of hunting and the implied manliness that goes with it. A noble deer goes down (no blood seen) but you can't help wondering are we meant to understand that the men who survive the horrors of war never shoot defenseless animals again? Or do the scenes suggest that if you enjoy hunting, war will be fun? Or do they just set a violent foundation for men heading to war who will themselves be hunted one day? Equally puzzling, why does the camera linger inexplicably on John Cazale, playing a bit of a fool, as he admires his reflection in a car window? What does this add to the story? Much of The Deer Hunter feels like two supporting devices designed to hold up the weighty and brilliant middle. The story is symphonic, told in three movements, marking time through human experience, from high hopes to grim reality. The progression starts with optimism -- a wedding, quitting of jobs, the promise of adventure in the army. Then war rips naivete away leaving frayed threads. A funeral fittingly brings the action to a close.
Cimino, who went over budget and over schedule, would later bring down an entire studio with his next over-budget project, Heaven's Gate. It's his tendency to place moments of cinematic brilliance side by side with well-observed nonessentials that make his films gravely compelling but simultaneously maddening. We tend to forgive all this and ride along with The Deer Hunter and its magnificent emotionalism owing to great performances by a riveting cast. De Niro, Walken, Savage, and Meryl Streep are grippingly watchable at every moment, no matter how questionable the plot point or sketchy the dialogue. Even when the movie is least believable, as when Nik takes a ride with the devil into the underworld that will swallow his life, Walken's immersion in Nik sweeps us into the fiction. The Vietnam sequences are rendered with a rare intensity and artistry -- not a moment of screen time is wasted. As the soldiers suffer agonies, a viewer will find it difficult to forget that the protagonists all went to fight in Vietnam voluntarily. Every horror they experience is tinged with this understanding, underscoring the way that mindless acceptance, no matter how well intended, can sometimes be mistaken for patriotism. Nowhere does the film suggest that even a single character wonders if the war that changed so many lives forever may have been unnecessary or unjustified. When mourning friends sing "God Bless America," the irony is unmistakable.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how movies like The Deer Hunter use violence to help tell the story. Is this movie in favor of killing deer? Is it in favor of war? How do you know?
How do the extremely long and detailed scenes of steel-working, deer hunting, and a wedding reception set up scenes of war? What do you learn about the men's relationships in the early scenes that give meaning to the war scenes?
Do you think that being exposed to violence in movies makes people less sensitive to violence in their lives? Do you think seeing violence on the screen can have other kinds of negative effects on viewers?
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