If ever a director could be deemed divisive, it’s probably Michael Cimino. With only his sophomore effort as director, the man won the Academy Award in 1978 for his film The Deer Hunter. Many then, and many now, still consider the film a masterpiece – and Cimino’s direction is often heralded. However, every film the man has made since was either savagely ripped apart by critics or box-office bombs; most of the former underlining issues with pace and Cimino’s notorious behind-the-scenes extremism. Only two years after the praise and acclaim of The Deer Hunter, Cimino won the Razzie for Worst Director, was nominated multiple times again by the Razzies over the years, and eventually finished his career on a thriller that went direct-to-video in the mid-1990s.
Many well-regarded directors have spoken of their appreciation of Cimino’s work; not only with The Deer Hunter, but some even (Tarantino, unsurprisingly, included, along with Scorsese) pushing for a revaluation of his financial and critical bomb Heaven’s Gate – the very film that earned him that Razzie “win”. One of Cimino’s more distinctive auteur traits include an itch for commentary on American politics: from the socioeconomics in his debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, to the cultural drug clashes of Year of the Dragon, and all the way up to the moral gray areas of the criminal system in his final theatrical release Desperate Hours. Heaven’s Gate is never subtle in the way it critiques the system – being a Western that spends the first forty or so minutes at Yale University among crowds of hedonistic and spoiled students of wealth. Some argue it’s in his unsympathetic views that may have turned many sour.
While his films are always interested in Americana (sometimes, as with his later films, to almost parodic levels), Cimino also seems to be one for creating near-pornographic use of the country as an alternatingly beautiful and bleak world full of symbols. To further illustrate his political themes, many of his films are burnt with sepia undertones and smoky interiors or bright, colorful crispness; almost always shooting anamorphic and staging frames with full views of both rural and city terrain that correlate with his characters’ current situations. In fact, Cimino’s attention to detail in framing is almost annoyingly precise; sometimes on-the-nose, but also quite often effective. It’s also refreshing that Cimino has a knack for meditative patience with his narratives – at times even breaking conventional grounds of structure and bravely breaking from conventional one, two, three development.
Simply looking at The Deer Hunter, Cimino’s interesting three-act structure is commendable. There hardly seems to be a swift shift in tone between the three, all of them intentionally abrupt. The Deer Hunter is a war film at the center: the middle act – set in Vietnam with those visual uses of barbed wire and drifting rivers that highlight entrapment – comes as a stunning point where the story itself, and Cimino for sure, is making what it feels is a peak point. Not only the image of the film’s theatrical poster, but whenever somebody mentions the iconic ‘Russian Roulette’ sequence (and it’s mirror climax scene), in particular, as one of the most brutally suspenseful moments ever filmed, there’s no other grounds for anything but a nod of agreement. The scenes are absolutely terrifying, but there isn’t a lack of grit in the other Vietnam scenarios. They, too, repulse and petrify.
If anything, though, through the violence of these scenes, The Deer Hunter still remains one of the more personable of Vietnam films, if only because Cimino gracefully allows for the destruction to be pinpointed from all sides. (The use of ‘gracefully’ is key, because it’s through Cimino’s trademark stylization that make it work unlike others of its ilk.) The film is remarkably human; feeling so because of Cimino’s approach. Deric Washburn supplied a screenplay ready to illustrate the effects of war on the American soldier, but Cimino turned it purely into a cinematic enterprise – where it’s still palpably about the traumas of the American soldier, but also viciously critical and poetic. As an example, the first moments of the film are purely a directorial feat: close-ups and drawn-out gazes at the machines of the steel-producing factories in a working-class American town. The screenplay asks the viewer its patience, already, with the first act of the film; revolving around a wedding and a hunting trip. Cimino takes it all further, by pacing it and letting the characters develop organically within slow-burning pieces such as that.
The wedding sequence itself, full of rambling conversational pieces, establishes the forefront characters as soldiers, and establishes the little sparks of melodrama that factor importantly into the story. What it also does, however, is develop a full community – one connected culturally and one, possibly unknowingly, stuck in a cycle not so far unlike the spinning of those factory machines.
This world, so boldly Americanized in the film, is formed by the behaviors of the people who inhabit it: the way some of the young soldiers seem to be so oblivious (or in denial) of where they’re heading. That all being paralleled with the elderly lives stumbling into bars on the nights following a long shift in the factories. Cimino’s smaller elements that illustrate domestic lives just as lost – and of its own form of tragedy – are there: both the wine stains on the bride’s dress and the bruise on her cheek, or the mounted deer head that is framed meticulously into a scene involving what characters refer to as “one shot” – the film’s titular of heavier-handed motifs. If these weren’t enough, the steel factories are almost always shown in the backgrounds of exterior shots – hovering over the town like Satan in F.W. Murnau’s Faust. It’s a testament to Cimino’s respect for the audience's intelligence when he allows the film to linger on a drunken character running nude through the night-lit streets of the industrial American homeland, purely for insight to the character.
The Vietnam scenes arrive aggressively and without remorse – as they should. While the first act introduces the American life via the spitting flames of the factories, the brutality of the war is introduced with the burning flames of a Vietnamese village. Whereas our main character was previously shown as a working-class man and free-time deer hunter making a living, has now become – via a scene involving the use of a flamethrower – both a machine and a different type of hunter… trying to survive.
The sheer brutality of war and the existential damage caused is then quickly brought back home, and the soldiers have understandably changed. And for some of them, the world just doesn’t seem to make much sense anymore. It’s disturbing to think of Christopher Walken’s character finding some kind of solace – some kind of meaning – masochistically wanting to return to his history in order to put his mind at ease.
The film’s third act is all the more powerful because of the film’s glacial ‘grace’ beforehand. Even when the more mechanical subplots come in, Cimino is still focused on the damage done, and the way both the domestic and traumatized tragedies don’t quite understand nor connect with one another, and how hard that is for someone having experienced both. Cimino’s use of “God Bless America” in a pinnacle scene, alternatingly satirical and depressing; almost laughable due to the lack of subtelty, but then so painfully real because of all the subtlety that has come before it. It’s one of the cinema’s most difficult moments to digest, because there sits De Niro’s character at that dining table, having struggled to come to terms with those giving him the patriotism he’s not fully understanding of; having become – in the place he once was naïve and called home – a deer’s head plastered to a wall. He’s a machine. He’s a hunter. He’s still lost, but now scarred, and there’s varied kinds of blood on his hands. And yet he smiles…
It’s a wonder if The Deer Hunter would have been as applauded (I’d personally like to think it would have) had it been released post-Heaven’s Gate – when Cimino had presented himself with such a reputation of notoriety. Would the ‘Russian Roulette’ sequences been as forgiven for their lack of sentimentalism? Especially following the xenophobic accusations with Cimino’s later films, where his political commentary hit peaks of sensationalism? Would the methodic nature of the film’s first act have been as accepted, after the long sequences in Heaven’s Gate where the story would halt to showcase people rollerblading and swimming in ponds for minutes? Would they really think of Cimino as having a point, or would there have been more difficulty accepting the man’s approach? For every inch of power that comes from the commentary in The Deer Hunter, and regardless of Cimino’s evaluation as a lost American auteur, it’s hard to deny that The Deer Hunter isn’t a Cimino film; that the man’s fingerprints aren't all over it.