Monday, June 11, 2012

Film review: "The Deer Hunter" (1978)

In only her second feature film, Meryl scored her first Academy Award nomination (supporting actress) starring alongside Robert De Niro in best picture-winner The Deer Hunter.  De Niro had seen Meryl in a play in New York, and when it came time to cast The Deer Hunter, he sort of hand-picked her for the role of Linda.  Evidently the screenplay originally didn't have a ton of screen time for Linda, so Meryl was encouraged by director Michael Cimino to write some of her own lines.

Let's face it, this movie is incredibly depressing.  I tried watching some of it over the last week (mostly Meryl parts), and I had forgotten how thematically morose it is.  The first main chunk takes place near Pittsburgh in the late 1960's, where we follow the lives of a group of blue-collar friends, three of which are soon to be deployed to Vietnam.  Michael (De Niro) is kind of the leader and a close friend of Nick (Christopher Walken), who plays Linda's boyfriend.  We learn that Michael has hidden feelings for Linda, although she has just promised to marry Nick after his return from service in the war.

I've seen videos of Meryl talking about this role a few times.  In her commencement speech to Barnard College in 2010, she stated that her performance of Linda was rooted in her experiences in high school when she consciously changed herself to seem more appealing to boys.  She described how she would defer to the young men in a group when asked questions, and by "cultivating softness" she was able to make herself more noticed.  Having stockpiled this character into early adulthood, a decade later she accessed it again to breath life into Linda.  Meryl describes this character as a girl who's always waiting.  Waiting to be asked to dance...to be asked out on a date...for her boyfriend to return from the war.   We're definitely able to see this in some of her scenes in the film.  Particularly when she's with Michael, Linda appears uncomfortable and out of sorts without his lead. 

The film progresses to scenes in Vietnam where Michael, Nick and their friend Steven are captured and forced to play Russian roulette while the captors palce bets on them.   These scenes were rather controversial at the time, as apparently there are no documented cases of this happening during the Vietnam conflict.  Regardless, it's an interesting metaphor for the horrors of war, made especially poignant by the fact that the three lead characters are of Russian descent.  The three eventually escape captivity into a river, but are split up when Nick is the only one rescued by a passing helicopter. 

Upon Michael's return to the U.S. we see probably the best scenes with Meryl.  After having skipped out on his coming home party, Michael returns to Linda's trailer where we see her waiting.  She so naturally conveys feelings of helplessness.  As Meryl has commented about Linda, it's not a proactive existence.  Thus we see her intense relief and happiness upon seeing Michael show up at her door. Again, my thanks to Simply Streep for the use of this video.



Michael goes hunting (for guess what) with his friends, which one would think would be a fun reunion, but again, the overall tone is sort of dark and foreboding, as soon he decides to visit Steven in a VA hospital.  Michael learns from Steven, who has lost both legs, that money has been repeatedly sent from Saigon, and Michael believes it's from Nick.  Going back to Vietnam, Michael finds that Nick is drug ravaged and involved in the underground business of Russian roulette.  Trying to get through to his friend, we ultimately see Nick take a bullet to the head in his last game.  Good times.  The movie basically ends after Nick's funeral back in Pennsylvania, again not a particularly jubilant scene.

I've probably spent more time in this post than in other film reviews actually discussing the plot of the movie.  In part it's because Meryl's role isn't super huge, but mostly because the film, although frequently morbid, is extremely well made.  In addition to the aforementioned win for best picture, Walken won the Academy Award for supporting actor and Cimico for director.  At the time, Meryl was romantically involved with John Cazale, who played Stanley and is probably best known for his role as Fredo in The Godfather.  Cazale was suffering from terminal cancer during shooting, requiring all his scenes to be shot first.   He died in March 1978, his last vision on earth being Meryl's face. 

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