It starts out like a male bonding comedy / drama, as a bunch of steel workers booze up in a bar after a hard day of work. There's Steven (John Savage), a worried young guy who's about to get married in a few hours. The marriage will also be an occasion to wish luck to the newly wed, Nicky and Michael, who are leaving for Vietnam the next day. The film spends a lot of time with the characters that day, and they appear three-dimensional to us before they even get to Nam. The wedding and the party that follows is as extended as the wedding that opens "The Godfather". We see how these guys act together, and we mostly follow Mike, who's interpreted by a Robert De Niro at the top of his form. Mike is really a man's man. Strong-minded and fearless, he's also a man who always stand by his friends. Okay, he may drink too much, and he sometimes loses his temper, but basically, he's a good guy. Nick, brilliantly performed by Christopher Walken, is a calmer, probably wiser guy. He likes to have fun as much as the next guy, but he knows when to back down. After the wedding, Mike, Nick and a few other jolly fellas go in the mountain to hunt some deer, as Steve spends one last night with his wife.
And before they know it, shooting something ain't a sport anymore. Director Michael Cimino cuts right down to the heart of war, as an already disturbed Michael crawls around a Vietnamese village, as gunfire and explosions are raging. The effect is striking. We really see how it must feel to be suddenly pulled out of your life and thrown in hell on earth. This ain't a film where everything is clear, visibly scripted like "Saving Private Ryan". War is portrayed through wrenching episodes, and there's no time for heartwarming anecdotes. The key scene is an absolutely riveting sequence in which the three American soldiers are taken prisoner and forced to play Russian roulette as their captors gamble on whose brain will spill. Every actor is going through a lot, and all this random death is messing their minds up. Walken is all silent, and we watches as he gradually seems to lose his sanity. Savage, on the other hand, is shivering and sobbing. In fact, the only one who finds the strength to keep going is De Niro, and he tries to provoke his friends into taking action. This is truly a horrifying scene, and it's understandable that they won't ever be the same...
And then, Cimino goes back home with his hero. Michael seems okay, physically at least, but he's not the same man. He does stumbles through trying to get close to Nick's girlfriend, Linda. Mike has always like her, but he never had the guts to ask her out. And now, it's worse than ever. He can't even hunt anymore! The only thing he's got left to do is to try to find his friends... So this is "The Deer Hunter", a fascinating 2 hour epic that's more than just a war movie. Though the Nam scenes are extremely intense, the movie is more about how war affects the lives of soldiers and their families. Cimino does an awesome job on the film. He crafts powerful war scenes, but he never loses touch with the characters. There's also a lot of interesting symbolism. Deer hunting doesn't feel the same once you shot at a man. As for Russian roulette, it might represent the war altogether: a series of meaningless random deaths, motivated by greed. The film is also pumped out by stunning cinematography and a great score from John Williams.
As I said, the performances are magnificent. Even the little known actors are excellent, but there's no doubt that it's De Niro who's the most memorable. As Michael, it's impressive how he goes from careless All-American Joe to cold-blooded soldier to bittersweet veteran and always remains convincing. Chris Walken is also great. For most of the film, he's playing a more-or-less straight character, but I'm pretty sure that what won him his Oscar is the part where he's so out of it that he looks as if he was dead but didn't know it yet. The other exceptional performance is Meryl Streep's. Her Linda is almost the only female presence, and her sensibility is welcomed in this testosterone-fueled film. Streep sure is a gifted lady, and she's as charming as she's touching. She never ever hits a false note. "The Deer Hunter" is definitively a film to see, one of the greatest war films of all time.