Cinema: In Hell Without a Map

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Directed by Michael Cimino;

Screenplay by Deric Washburn

Mere sex and violence are not enough to make films shocking any more.

Truly shocking movies are those that use sex and violence to push the audience to some new and uncharted psychological frontier. That is what happened in Last Tango in Paris, where Bertolucci used raunchy sex to challenge the conventions of romantic love; it is also what happened in The Godfather, where Coppola used gore to undermine the sanctities of the American family. Though imperfect, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter is as powerful as those bombshells of the early '70s. This excruciatingly violent, three-hour Viet Nam saga demolishes the moral and ideological cliches of an era: it shoves the audience into hell and leaves it stranded without a map.

Such is Cimino's fresh perspective that The Deer Hunter should be an equally disorienting experience for hawks and doves. This is the first movie about Viet Nam to free itself from all political cant. It contains no antiwar characters at all; its prowar characters are apolitical foot soldiers, not fire-breathing gook killers. The film is as far removed from Coming Home as it is from The Green Berets. Cimino has attempted to embrace all the tragic contradictions of the U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia.

Those contradictions are embodied by the movie's two principal characters, Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken), steel-mill workers from Clairton, Pa., who go off unquestioningly to fight for their country. In the film's first hour, set at home, Cimino presents his buddies sympathetically as average men with traditional values: their lives are defined by work, family, church and a love of sport. What happens subsequently to Michael and Nick in Viet Nam is a paradigm of what happened to the U.S.

Tested by an insane war, the good old American values become warped. Michael proves a hero, but the emptiness of his heroism leaves him dissociated from ordinary life when he returns home. Nick succumbs to madness and drugs. The two pals are Hawthorne's Dimmesdale and Chillingworth gone berserk. One man's strong will to survive becomes the other's will to commit suicide; a nation's manly mission turns into a self-inflicted wound. The director leaves the assignment of blame to historians.

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