The Story (continued)
The Deer Hunter (1978)
The film returns to a nighttime setting in Clairton Pennsylvania, where WELCOME HOME MICHAEL signs are stretched across the road. In the back seat of a taxicab, medal-decorated Michael (dressed in his uniform, with an Airborne Ranger shoulder patch and dark-colored beret) spots the sign. Naturally reticent and feeling awkward about being claimed and honored as a hero in a welcoming party, he is compelled to instruct the driver to "just keep going." In his trailer (where Linda has been staying), his hometown friends have assembled together to celebrate his return, but he deliberately avoids the reception and books a room in the River View MOTEL further outside of town. In the solitude of his antiseptic motel room, he sits at the foot of the bed and holds his aching head with one hand - suppressing his own inner pain, psychological damage and scarring. He crouches uncomfortably against the wall, fighting back his haunted feelings and the emotional distance he feels from his old surroundings. [He acts similarly to the Vietnam veteran he questioned during the wedding reception years earlier.] As Nick did in the Saigon hospital, Michael looks at the laminated picture of Linda he has carried in his wallet to find an anchor and communicative, familiar face in his turbulent life.
The next morning, Michael surreptitiously watches his friends leave his trailer home and waits until everyone has vacated - except Linda. Then, he timidly approaches and is reunited in his home with her at the door - she happily hugs and greets him ("Welcome home"). [In the trailer hangs red/white/blue streamers and the stuffed head of the prized trophy deer Michael shot before leaving for his tour of duty.] She expresses her longing for Nick: "I was hoping, somehow Michael, maybe you had Nick with you." All that is known about Nick is that he is AWOL. Hurt by Nick's mysterious lack of contact, Linda tells Michael: "He never wrote to me, he never called me." They have little to meaningfully say to each other - her life hasn't changed much in the meantime, and it would be impossible to tell her of his horrific wartime experiences:
Linda: So, how are you, anyway?
Michael: I'm fine, OK. How are you?
Linda: Me? I'm OK. I'm fine. I go along, you know. Still workin' at the market. There's a million things to do. You sure you're all right, huh?
Linda: What about your wounds?
Michael: There's nothin', just healed. Just the usual complications, that's all.
Linda: But we heard...
Michael: No, that's not true. A lot of guys went through it.
Finally, she acknowledges her gratitude for his life: "Oh, I'm so glad you're alive. I'm so happy. I really don't know what I feel."
He accompanies her on her walk through town to work at the local grocery store, the Eagle Super Market. Along the way, townspeople and acquaintances greet and admire the uniformed returning veteran. With Linda's arm in his, thoughts of Nick are on his mind. He empathizes with his apologies about the apparent loss of Nick: "I just wanted to say how sorry I am about Nick. And how, I know how much you loved him and I know that it will never be the same. I just wanted to tell you that."
Another blast of orangish-red fire is not a return to the battlefields of Vietnam, but a look inside the blast furnace of the Pennsylvania steel factory. After Axel's and Stan's night shift ends, Michael speaks to his hometown friends who haven't changed much in the meantime, except for a mustache for Stan:
Stan: How does it feel to be shot?
Michael: Don't, don't hurt. That's what you want to know. And how's it been, doing OK?
Stan: Yeah, same old thing, you know. Nothin's changed. I'm gettin' more ass than a toilet seat and Axel here, he's gettin' better than ever.
Axel: Hey Stan, why don't you show him that gun - that little pussy thing you carry around in the back there. Look at that...
Michael: What's that for?
Stan: The same thing the other one was for.
Michael: And what was that?
In the back of John's bar, the reunited buddies scarf down shots of Russian vodka after Stan toasts: "To Nick and Steve." After learning that Angela, Steven's bride, is not doing well and is "worse since she talked to him," Michael visits her house to find out about Steven's whereabouts. Her young blonde boy, from the pregnancy that was beginning to show at the wedding, points a large toy gun at Michael as he enters. As Angela lays speechless on her bed, he repeatedly begs from her: "Where is he?" Finally, she writes her answer on a torn piece of paper. In a phone booth, he can't bring himself to make a phone call to Steven.
Later, Michael hastily turns down a "nice sit-down dinner" that Linda has planned to make for him while hastily leaving to visit the veteran's hospital where Steven is convalescing. Straining to communicate with Michael, Linda vainly attempts to establish some intimacy with him and to comfort him by suggesting that they go to bed together:
Linda: Why don't we go to bed? Can't we just comfort each other?
Michael: No, I can't. Not here. I gotta get out of here. I'm sorry. I just gotta get out...Look, I don't know. I feel a lot of distance and I feel far away. I'll see ya later.
But when she pursues him, he easily changes his mind about seeking out his friend - fearing the worst. She accompanies him to his motel room for the night. Wrapped modestly and tightly in a towel, she approaches him warily: "Feels kinda weird comin' to a motel." Unresponsive and thinking of how he has replaced Nick, the troubled hero lies prostrate on the bed as she cuddles next to him.
At the local Bowladrome bowling alley, the pals joke around with their usual goofy shenanigans, but Michael, a very changed man, doesn't participate. He just stares vacantly at his friends and speaks to Stan about another one of his female conquests at the bar.
"Just like old times," the exclusive male members of the group venture out for their second symbolic deer hunt - to return to their old routines. Again, ecclesiastical music accompanies Michael as he hunts alone in the snow-covered mountains. John, Axel and Stan shoot stray bullets at their prey, while Michael stalks a second beautiful buck and patiently waits for the perfect one shot - his primary 'religious' philosophy. But at the moment that he surveys the magnificent animal squarely in his gunsight, he pauses and deliberately aims high to spare the creature. His own irretrievably-changed life has also stripped him of his own hunting spirit. He affirms life and finds the strength to not hunt and spill blood. He rhetorically asks: "OK?" And then perched next to a cascading waterfall, he shouts loudly into the heavenly air: "OK?" The question echoes back at him - it is a turning point where he understands that life is transitory and fragile. And it is an incentive for him to resume a more positive, normal outlook on life.
In the hunting cabin, Stan fondles his small gun and spins its cylinder. Axel mocks him about the reason he carries a weapon: "In case you stumble on one of your girlfriend's sucking on a forest ranger's c--k?" Stan threatens Axel at point-blank range to repeat his insult, as Michael enters the room and overreacts. He abruptly seizes Stan's arm and disarms him, then points the gun away and fires into the ceiling to show that it was loaded and potentially lethal. He challenges his wimpy friend to the nihilistic roulette game in a shocking moment of catharsis: "You want to play games? All right, I'll play your f--king games." He places one bullet in the chamber, spins the cylinder, and then presses it against Stan's forehead: "How do ya feel now, huh? Huh?...Big shot." He pulls the trigger, but fortunately, it clicks empty. He disposes of the gun in a small pond. The estranged buddies return home, sullen and silent, unlike other trips in their past.
Michael locates Linda in the rear of the grocery store, where she cries for no apparent reason. After the store closes, Michael picks up Linda - she is slightly contemplative and sad about how life has turned out: "Do you ever think life would turn out like this?" He responds: "No." In the trailer (where the wall-mounted deer hangs watchfully), he consummates his love for Linda, becoming the lover of Nick's girlfriend. He also finds the strength to phone Steven, who has resigned himself to remain in the local Veterans Administration Hospital after having both legs and one arm amputated. The patients pass the time playing bingo, another random game of chance. Lacking courage and frightened about returning home to his wife and 'her' child, the wheelchair-bound, embittered veteran hides there to escape reality: "The place is great...It's like a resort...I mean they got basketball, bowling...Princess Grace came to see us the other day."
Michael visits a defeated, fearful Steven in person. Next to his bed, Steven shows Michael a drawer-full of $100 bills that mysteriously arrive from a source in Saigon: "This comes every month from Saigon. I don't understand...That place is gonna fall any day now." Michael guesses that the cash is coming from Nick in the beleagured city of Saigon: "It's Nicky, Steve." Steven is ignorant of Nick's occupation: "Where is a guy like Nick gettin' money like this?" Steven is reluctant to have Michael take him home, exclaiming: "I don't fit."
Whirring helicopter blades transition the film back to Vietnam, where Michael has returned to find and rescue MIA Nick (and fulfill his promise to bring him home) after realizing that he may still be alive. Saigon is a desperate, falling city (at the eleventh hour) in turmoil and chaos as the war in mid-1975 is coming to an ignominious end and the Communist Viet Cong threaten to take over. From the US Embassy, riots break out at the entrance as thousands are forced to withdraw and evacuate and other would-be refugees clamor to leave - portrayed in authentic documentary (and simulated) footage. Fires have ravaged and destroyed much of the urban area. In a harrowing sequence, civilian-clothed Michael searches for Nick, locating the Frenchman instead during his hasty evacuation. The pimp disavows any knowledge of Michael's friend: "He disappeared a long time ago," but then accepts Michael's bribe of a wad of cash for gambling: "I want a game." The greedy Frenchman fears that the situation is too dangerous, but is persuaded soon afterwards to lead him to Nick: "I want to play the American. I'll match him the highest stakes." Wary, Michael is led by a river route - where fires have made it a floating inferno and hellish evacuation route. He is brought through a circuitous route to an inner gambling den, after paying out another $1,500 in bribes.
The scene is familiar - another smoke-filled gambling room in the heart of Saigon where the lethal game of Russian roulette is actively flourishing and is led by a one-eyed referee. Michael winces as one of the young, red head-banded contestants blows his brains out. Addicted to the game, Nick is glimpsed as he arrives to be the next player. Michael's friend - dehumanized by his war experience, is glassy-eyed, drugged-out, and heroin-addicted, and constantly playing Russian roulette for high stakes in the gambling casinos. Frustrated, Michael pleads with Nick to leave but he cannot be awakened by love to recognize his best friend and be saved:
I came 12,000 miles back here to get you...What's the matter with you? Don't you recognize me?...Nicky, I love you, you're my friend. What are you doing?
At the end of his tether, Michael takes another approach to jar the memory of his automaton-zombie friend. He buys himself into the game (with some of his own cash and some from the cynical Frenchman's bribe money) - risking suicide so that he can be retrieved and saved. The gambling crowd reaches a howling, fever pitch when the two Caucasians face opposite each other at the Russian roulette table, once again reunited. Trying to shock his friend into recognition - by recalling their time together in the POW shack, Michael begs Nick to leave with him: "We don't have much time, Nick." Nick takes the gun - with one bullet, and points it threateningly at his temple, but there is no bullet. After being handed the gun for his turn, Michael asks rhetorically:
Is this what you want? Is this what you want? I love you, Nick.
As he cocks and pulls the trigger, he also survives the first round, relieved that he is still alive. There has been a faint flicker of recognition on Nick's face, and Michael pleads: "Come on, Nicky, come home. Just come home. Home. Talk to me." Michael delays the game by grabbing his friend's hand that already clenches the gun for the second round, asking: "What did you do to your arms?" There are scars of needle-tracks up Nick's arm - and emotional scars too deep to reach, although Michael attempts to break through one last persuasive time:
Michael: Do you remember the trees? Do you remember all the different ways of the trees? Do you remember that? Do you remember? Huh? The mountains? Do you remember all that?
Nick: One shot. (He smiles and laughs in recognition.)
Michael: One shot, one shot.
Nick remembers Michael's hunting credo, but it is too late to save him. Nick blows his brains out with the next shot - one shot, living out the logical consequence of the code. The "one shot" hunting theme and the deadly Russian roulette gamble are tragically echoed in the death of Nick. Michael's mission to bring Nick home alive has failed. As blood spurts from his friend's temple, Michael is emotionally devastated and agonizes over Nick's death. Howling with grief, he cradles his pal's head, pleading for him not to die: "Nicky, Nicky, don't, Nick, no!!"
An ABC-TV evening news report from Hillary Brown "aboard the attack aircraft carrier USS Hancock in the South China Sea" documents the global failure of American foreign policy in Vietnam, as helicopters are dumped off its decks:
This seems to be the last chapter in the history of American involvement in Vietnam. It's also been the largest single movement of people in the history of America itself.
Bells ring from the bluish domes of the Clairton Pennsylvania Russian-Orthodox Cathedral. Michael has fulfilled his promise to bring Nick's corpse home. The fallen casualty of war is eulogized by his friends in a solemn funeral and gathering back home. Pallbearers John, Axel, Michael, and Stan carry the four corners of Nick's coffin from the church, now reunited by his death. Paraplegic Steven has also come home to be with Angela.
After a ceremony at the graveside in which the mourners toss flowers on the casket, they assemble in Welsh's Bar for a breakfast wake in an emotional and poignant final scene. They remain awkwardly silent, disillusioned, moody and overtaken by grief. Members busy themselves with passing out silverware, cups, and coffee. Angela mentions the weather - and the mood: "It's such a gray day." As John prepares scrambled eggs in the kitchen, he weeps and then begins humming an impromptu rendition of God Bless America within earshot of the others. When he returns to the group's table, now together as a community of hardened survivors amidst the disfiguring tragedy of the failed war, they pick up the tune and thereby comfort each other and heal their wounds. Linda starts singing the words to the familiar and naively patriotic anthem - and everyone joins in. At first, they are embarrassed, but then uplifted and renewed by the singing of the ritualistic song. They reverentially raise their beer mugs to Nick, as Michael toasts "Here's to Nick," quietly understanding that he paid the ultimate price for his patriotism. Their ordeal is over. The film ends and freeze-frames with their mugs in mid-air.
Fade to black.
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AMC Filmcritic's Review of The Deer Hunter