Louis Garfinkle, Quinn Redeker, Deric Washburn, and Michael Cimino, 1978
#8 of 28 in the 20th century series
I’m not entirely sure how this movie ended up on this list; I had only seen it once before, and I don’t even remember exactly when. I’m guessing that I went to the video store, saw this, thought “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard this is critically acclaimed!”, rented it, watched it, and thought “Wow, that was intense!”, which at the time was all it took for me to add it to my personal pantheon. These days it takes a little more.
The Deer Hunter has two main settings: a heavily Slavic town in the industrial sprawl outside Pittsburgh, and Vietnam towards the end of the war. Most of the scenes in Vietnam revolve not around combat but around Russian roulette: the Vietcong make their prisoners play it, and then it turns out that in Saigon gambling on Russian roulette is a big underground craze. Apparently the original script by Garfinkle and Redeker was set in Las Vegas, the idea being that in a city notorious for gambling, this was the next logical step. It seems to have been Cimino’s idea to relocate the action to Vietnam, not because anyone ever attested to the Vietcong torturing prisoners with Russian roulette games, but because going to Vietnam was itself equivalent to pointing a gun at your own head and pulling the trigger. Maybe you come out shaken but okay, or maybe you die. Or maybe you end up maimed, or psychologically shattered. In any case, I get the metaphor, but still, on the literal level the idea of people making fortunes and gaining fame playing Russian roulette for months on end is absurd: you have less than a 1% chance of surviving seven rounds and less than a 0.1% chance of surviving ten. This in and of itself is not a dealbreaker—it could still work if the rest of the film had an absurdist tone. But it doesn’t. It’s actually more in the vein of social realism, presenting a slice of America that doesn’t often appear in media portrayals: a particularly grotty hole in the Rust Belt, with rundown shacks wedged in among the smokestacks and the great onion domes of the Russian Orthodox church looming above the tangle of cables strangling the wet gray sky. I’ve seen a lot of movies and TV shows that contrast the loud, seedy, wartorn third‐world city with the affluent suburb or idyllic small town back home, so I was struck by how in this movie the patch of America the protagonists return to is no less squalid than the patch of Vietnam they left behind—and, to much of the audience, no less foreign. (Personally, I grew up in an area with a lot more Nguyens and Trans than Vronskys and Chevotareviches.) Pattern 24 says that I’m a big fan of geographically and chronologically grounded narratives, and I found a lot of this material fascinating—I often found myself thinking, e.g., “Whoa! 1970s corner grocery! Lemme look at those shelves! Awesome!”—but not only were the endless scenes of pranks and putdowns that constitute “male bonding” tedious, this half of the movie just doesn’t work together together with the metaphorical Russian roulette half. Even for me, normally very much into weaving together disparate tones and genres, it was just too much of a clash between different levels of reality.