Michael’s life of absolute control is no longer a sure thing, the Divine Eros of one shot corrupted into a chaotic ugly maxim of pure chance. Director Michael Cimino camouflages the virtual subtext of homo-eroticism beneath a mythological journey into war. THE DEER HUNTER isn't a polemic about America’s involvement in Vietnam: it is tragic love story between Michael and his best friend Nick.
Here in the heart of blue-collar America, a sextet of men are birthed in the furnace of steel factories and orthodox religion, Russian Americans who pledge allegiance to the flag and each other, united under bonds of friendship, honor and love. Cimino begins the film by introducing the men shrouded in flames and molten steel, hidden beneath a thick outer shell of protective clothing. He cuts to the locker room where they undress in chaotic displays of machismo and sexually charged behavior. The first intelligible words are spoken by Nick, who cracks wise with a heterosexual pun: Did you hear about the happy Roman? Answer: Gladiator (or phonetically: glad-he-ate-her). Stan primps himself in the mirror to no avail as Nick jokes once again. It soon becomes evident that Michael is the quiet but headstrong leader of the group as the others defer to him.
Cimino uses a cloistered small town setting to explore unspoken emotional issues about men as the protagonists become a microcosm of manhood. His camera focuses upon Michael and Nick often, cutting to close-up, following their furtive glances and shared expressions. This intimacy between these two cohorts is not shared by any other character including Linda, the woman who stands between them (and yet doesn't separate them). Though Nick proposes seemingly off-the-cuff to Linda at Steven’s wedding, there is no indication that the two of them have a sexual relationship. Michael and Nick still live together and are drifting apart as Nick states, “I’m not into One Shot anymore”. He seems to want something more…but what? I believe the subtext reveals that he wants a physical relationship with Michael, not the suffering (from his point of view) Platonic love that has been offered.
This is read by the films editing patterns, showing the two of them close without showing them together. It’s a subtle message that Cimino offers and one hidden beneath this aura of righteous brotherhood. Is Michael attracted also to Linda? Or does he see her as an obstacle? If the latter, it explains his awkward behavior with her during the wedding sequence. Even Stan, who is rather homely and judges his own manhood by the women he keeps, calls Michael out of the closet. Michael responds with a seething anger and the enigmatic, “This is this”. Well, things are what they are: we don’t always get to decide what we want to be.
Cimino doesn't seem interested in the complex character of Linda but uses her to contrast Michael and Nick’s relationship. When Michael returns home she states quite plainly that she was hoping Nick was along. Both she and Michael miss Nick dearly and their eventual copulation doesn't bring them closer to each other…it brings them each closer to Nick’s memory. Cimino also isn't interested in the politics of Vietnam. He purposely doesn't utilize any overt imagery or music such as drug use, rock’ n roll, or protests; he even depicts Michael’s (and even the “Fuck it” Green Beret from the reception) return as peaceful and accepted (though psychologically damaged). This counterpoint to counterculture is interesting and purposeful so as not to distract from his true intentions: Cimino did not set out to make a documentary of the conflict or an anti-war film. Michael, Nick and Steven even enlist…they aren't drafted. Cimino has created the antithesis to APOCALYPSE NOW. The closest he gets is in the first Vietnam sequence when a Vietnamese soldier throws a grenade into a dugout full of women and children. Michael kills him with a flame-thrower for this needlessly cruel act and the imagery ties in with Clairton and the hellish steel mills. But even this scene is ambiguous: is the soldier North or South Vietnamese? Where the US troops defending the village or attacking it? Cimino doesn't answer and only poses the madding subversive image, and one that yields different interpretations.
THE DEER HUNTER is not a true film of the Vietnam War nor is it meant to be. It is allegory and metaphor, utilizing the VC captors as the pressure to examine the end result of this band of brothers: coal into diamond. If the film is considered to make a statement about the war, then the enemy is an obscene stereotype. If however, one considers the film as myth, these dimensionless characters are treated only a means for the protagonist’s ends. This Russian roulette is a grim corruption of the beauty of Michael’s one shot: he’s the one who forces the others to play. They survive the game and Vietnam by pure chance. Steel is strong but once broken it needs to be re-forged.
Nick is separated from Michael and Steven and stays behind in country. It’s important to note that Nick never knows what happens to his friends: he’s whisked away by helicopter while they fall into the murky river, potentially dead or captured. Cimino doesn't mention this fact directly but infers it through editing. If Nick believes Michael is dead, why go back home? He cannot even bring himself to call Linda and hangs up before the connection is made. We see the same photograph of Linda in both his and Michael’s wallet but to what purpose? They both love her but for different reasons. Cimino also never mentions the promise that a naked and drunk Michael swore the night before their departure to the Army: “Don’t leave me behind Michael. Don’t leave me”, Nick says. And Michael doesn't leave him.
The final roulette scene is tragic in a few different ways. It’s tragic on the surface because Nick fails to escape the chaos of Vietnam, the adrenaline of the game, the addiction to pure chance. In this way Nick is a victim to circumstances. But the rip-current is strong, the subtext drowning, as the tragedy is intensified by Michael’s refusal to acknowledge Nick’s unconditional love for him. Michael begs for him to come home and when Michael says, “You’re my friend”, Nick spits in his face. Friendship is not enough now. As Michael puts his own life on the line to prove his devotion it almost works, but he makes the mistake of mentioning one shot, alluding to an unchanging future of frustration for Nick. Is this a suicide? Is it Nick saying, “I’ll show you who is in control”? “Fuck it” indeed.
Michael’s love for Nick is Platonic, a selfish love that helps him understand the world, make sense of it, to see the beauty in the hunt as addictive and religious. Nick is the catalyst for this but it seems that Nick wants more: he wants physical love. So, when Michael returns and Nick is still lost, he cannot kill the deer. Now it is only suffering and death he sees because beauty is lost to him. His vision occluded, he must find Nick to find the cure. This relationship is only heightened by the hell storm of war, and Linda tiptoes between the two of them, wanting Nick (and never having slept with him) and being with Michael because it reminds her of Nick.
As the friends finally gather for Nick’s wake, they spontaneously sing America the Beautiful, to acknowledge their loss, to find something grandeur to say. I don’t believe this is meant to be ironic or a statement about the war, any more than the preceding 2+ hours was a statement about the war. It is merely a spontaneous recital to acknowledge beauty and loss of Nick to whom they toast. Cimino freezes upon this toast and then cuts to a photograph of Nick, giving us the pulse of the film before it dies gently into that good night.
Final Grade: (A+)