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The Deer Hunter(1978)
Michael, Steven and Nick are young factory workers from Pennsylvania who enlist into the Army to fight in Vietnam. Before they go, Steven marries the pregnant Angela and their wedding-party is also the men's farewell party. After some time and many horrors the three friends fall in the hands of the Vietcong and are brought to a prison camp in which they are forced to play Russian roulette against each other. Michael makes it possible for them to escape, but they soon get separated again.
For more about The Deer Hunter and the The Deer Hunter Blu-ray release, see the The Deer Hunter Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 29, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, John Savage, George Dzundza
Director: Michael Cimino
» See full cast & crew
The Deer Hunter Blu-ray Review
God Bless America.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 29, 2012
It's somehow fitting that The Deer Hunter should be coming out on Blu-ray at around the same time that Meryl Streep is getting a whole new round of accolades concurrent with her at least somewhat unexpected Best Actress Academy Award win for The Iron Lady. For it was, as incredible as it may seem (at least to those of us who are loathe to admit how shockingly old we've become) The Deer Hunter that first introduced film audiences to the amazing talent of Streep, who prior to this film had just had a bit role in Fred Zinneman's Julia as well as the miniseries Holocaust. Who would have predicted that this young ingénue would go on to tower over every other actress of her generation, with one iconic performance after another, a record setting number of Oscar nominations (including her first for The Deer Hunter) and (as of 2012 anyway) three wins to her credit. But Streep's contributions, as awesome as they are, to The Deer Hunter are still relatively minor to what is one of the most impressive ensemble pieces of the seventies. A large cast including Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, George Dzundza and John Savage help bring to life Michael Cimino's sprawling opus of Pennsylvania steel workers who end up being traumatized by their experiences in Vietnam.
It's rather interesting to contrast the quick depictions Hollywood offered of World War II once that conflict started with their somewhat more reticent response to Vietnam. While some lesser known films like The Boys in Company C (also recently out on Blu-ray) may have predated The Deer Hunter, it was really Michael Cimino's film that put the Vietnam War squarely on the cinematic map. What's so fascinating about this is the fact that so much of the film takes place outside of the war torn jungles of that far off Asian land. But that's also what lends The Deer Hunter its inescapable emotional fury. This is a film about context, one that contrasts home life with the turmoil of being in a war, which doesn't necessarily mean being in battle.
Michael Cimino crafts The Deer Hunter as something akin to the trifold religious murals of yore, triptychs that offered three distinct yet interrelated panels. It's worth noting that The Deer Hunter is well into its second hour before Vietnam really rears its ugly head, though the conflict is certainly part and parcel of the subtext of the first section of the film, which develops the relationships between Michael (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Steven (Savage). There is also a handful of other characters that are introduced in this opening gambit, including Nick's girlfriend (and soon fiancée), Linda (Streep). Cimino admirably sets up a very real feeling blue collar community here, with some telling little moments that instantly convey the environment of these characters, moments like Linda's father slapping her into submission in an early scene, or the bantering interplay between the guys when they go deer hunting one last time before Nick, Steven and Michael head over for their tour of duty in Vietnam. The opening third of the film is in some ways the slowest aspect of The Deer Hunter, but patience is more than repaid when the second two acts revisit many of the character beats introduced in this segment.
The film takes a sudden and violent turn as we move into Vietnam, with a devastating set of scenes that instantly let us know we're in a strange new world where any semblance of morality has fallen by the wayside. The feeling of moral turpitude increases exponentially when the three buddies end up as prisoners of the Vietcong, which is when the central emotional impact of The Deer Hunter is probably most deeply felt. The captors make the prisoners play Russian Roulette for their entertainment, and while Michael and Nick seem more able to handle the stress (at least relatively speaking), Steven begins to crumble under the pressure, leading to some devastating results. Michael's quick thinking ultimately leads to the trio being able to finagle an escape in one of the film's most visceral sequences, but the emotional trauma that Nick and Steven have been through end up coloring the rest of the film in unexpected ways.
The third act returns stateside, focusing mainly on Michael, whose long unrequited love for Linda begins to push once more to the surface. Without spoiling any major plot points for those who haven't seen the film, both Steven and Nick have to confront various calamities, either physical or emotional (or indeed both), and those efforts provide forward momentum to the film, which ends up teetering toward a climactic scene between Michael and Nick which remains one of the most gut wrenching moments in the entire history of film. A coda of sorts (literally and figuratively, since it's sung) finds several key characters gathered at a local pub in the wake of a devastating tragedy, where they sing a rather morose verse of "God Bless America". It's a moment completely devoid of irony and it remains a scene of incredible emotional impact.
There are few in the annals of Hollywood who have risen so quickly and then fallen so disastrously fast as director Michael Cimino. After having impressed Clint Eastwood with his work on Magnum Force, Eastwood optioned Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which was successful enough Cimino was able to write his own ticket for his follow up film. Cimino turned to his Silent Running co-writer Deric Washburn for The Deer Hunter (trivia note: the third writer on Silent Running was Steven Bochco), and Washburn delivered at the very least an outline for what ultimately became The Deer Hunter. As cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond details in the excellent commentary accompanying this Blu-ray, Cimino favored improvisation and encouraged his actors to stretch out beyond the bounds of the actual written word, something that helps to give this film such a viscerally real feeling. And while it can't be denied that there are elements of the excess that would doom Cimino's next film, Heaven's Gate (and, as a result, Cimino's career, at least by and large), despite its length and sometimes slow pace, The Deer Hunter is carefully structured and brilliantly staged. A young and still relatively inexperienced cast also does stellar work, with Walken earning a much deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.
This is not a perfect film by any means, though. A lot has been written about the use of Russian Roulette as a central metaphor when there is little if any documentary evidence proving that the Vietcong ever engaged in this kind of emotional (and physical) torture. But that perhaps misses Cimino's larger point that anyone involved in war is in a very real way playing Russian Roulette, whether or not they want to. It may not be historically accurate (and it may indeed be too provocative for its own good), but emotionally it seems—well, on target. The film probably could have been trimmed by at least a half hour or more and felt more to the point, and its discursiveness (a trait that went completely off the rails in Heaven's Gate) has led some to feel that there's nothing at the center of the film, which might be a major mistake. Seen now over thirty years after its release, The Deer Hunter remains one of the most emotionally devastating experiences ever caught on film.
The Deer Hunter Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Deer Hunter is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal Pictures with an VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. For the record, this is now the second Universal Blu-ray release in their 100th Anniversary series that does not have a Main Menu ( All Quiet on the Western Front was the first), so like some of the recent MGM-Fox catalog releases, this film will start (after previews) and then you must hit the Pop Up Menu button to access Set Up and Extras. Universal catalog releases always come in for brickbats, though I personally seldom feel they're as hideous as some insist they are. Let's address the biggest issue that most people have with Universal catalog releases, the often misunderstood or misattributed DNR. Is there DNR applied to this release? Probably, though certainly not to any problematic degree. Look at screencap 3 of the Pennsylvania factory for one good example: if egregious DNR had been applied, not only would grain be missing (which it isn't), the mist and smoke in this scene would also either be frozen or waxy looking (which it also isn't). As Vilmos Zsigmond mentions in his fascinating commentary, the film utilizes quite a bit of stock footage (mostly for establishing shots), and in order to match the overly grainy look of that footage, he and Cimino found that they had to use copies of copies of prints since the Kodak film was so resilient to attempts to push contrast or exposure. This is where the DNR is probably most apparent, as the transitions from the stock footage to the actual footage of the film are somewhat more noticeable now. Even so, this transfer looks wonderfully fluid and natural in motion, without any plastic smearing quality that would suggest too aggressive DNR.
Putting aside the always contentious issue of DNR, the rest of this transfer is wonderful looking, with nicely saturated colors, beautiful sharpness and pleasing fine detail, and overall good stability (as my colleague Svet Atanasov mentioned in his review of the StudioCanal release of The Deer Hunter, there is some occasional very minor shimmer to deal with here and there). Digital sharpening also adds minimal haloing to a couple of backlit scenes that is noticeable but not overly distracting. On the other hand, shadow detail is superb, especially in the many dark interior scenes which are quite frequent throughout the film.
The Deer Hunter Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Deer Hunter features a great sounding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix which is incredibly well detailed and immersive. This track features none of the audio speed up which Svet Atanasov mentioned in his review of the StudioCanal release of this title. Fidelity is very strong and the ambient environmental effects in both the Pennsylvania and Vietnam sequences are outstanding, offering a consistent use of the surrounds that really helps establish a convincing soundfield. Dialogue is very cleanly presented, and the film's deliberate use of LFE is both shocking and visceral in several key scenes.
The Deer Hunter Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Deer Hunter Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Is The Deer Hunter a perfect film? No. Is it a masterpiece nonetheless? Probably—I'm always loathe to bequeath such an honor on a film that hasn't truly weathered the test of time (say, for fifty or sixty years), but my personal opinion is The Deer Hunter is nothing less than a towering achievement. With incredible performances by the then still young Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken (as well as a glut of incredible supporting performances), and a rare narrative sweep that puts post traumatic stress disorder in its proper context, The Deer Hunter is novelistic in the best sense of the word, slowly developing characters and interrelationships through a variety of circumstances and over some considerable time. The film is arguably too long and meandering, but there is so much worth experiencing in many of these nooks and crannies that it seems a little churlish to complain. This Universal Blu-ray is awfully light on supplements (especially when compared to the StudioCanal release), but the Zsigmond commentary is exceptional. Video and audio are similarly excellent, and this release comes Highly recommended.
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The Deer Hunter Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Deer Hunter Blu-ray - January 5, 2012
As part of its 100th Anniversary this year, Universal Studios Home Entertainment will offer re-issues of catalog titles, and the Deer Hunter Blu-ray will arrive in the March wave. Director Michael Cimino's epic drama focuses on a group of best friends whose lives ...
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