Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Deer Hunter: American Noir in a Classic Film

By Matt Phillips

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen this film, know that in subsequent paragraphs important plot events are revealed and discussed.

What kind of film is The Deer Hunter? Is it a postwar commentary, a war epic, a love triangle?

It’s probably all three of these things—yet, the film is also a noir thriller infused with working class grit. The opening scenes in the film—daily workings in a steel mill—establish the film’s depiction and examination of the American working class persona.

Our main characters (Robert De Niro as Mike, Christopher Walken as Nick) toil in the steel mill, gulp beer at shift’s end, sing along to pop music, bet on football and, when all that’s finished, drive to a haphazard prefab home in an American-made car.

They’re American, yes—but make no mistake, these characters are not born winners.

These men are born to lose.
And even when they’re winning, or think they’re winning, they’re putting one notch after another in the losing column. The home where Michael and Nick live has a roof and four walls, but it’s not a nice place by any stretch. Michael’s car? It’s okay, but he has to kick the bumper to make the trunk work. The only things they own which seem to be in excellent working order are their firearms.

Funny, how this description sounds like many a noir protagonist:

Bad plans. Bad life. Poor prospects. A gun in working order.

By working class standards, these men have it all: A job, a car, some money to burn, and the occasional off-day for a deer hunting trip with pals.

It’s the American Dream. And if things aren’t good enough now, they’re bound to get better.

That’s how America works, isn’t it?

But in Mike—a character De Niro inhabits with courage and depth—we see a tension related to his economic identity. It’s Mike who, on the first deer hunting trip in the film, lifts a rifle round and says, “This, is this. This ain’t something else. This, is this.”

From his lazy pal, Stan (a fascinating character played by John Cazale), Mike receives the confounded response: “What the hell is that supposed to mean, ‘This is this?’”

What Mike means, of course, is exactly what he says: He and Nick and Steven are headed to Vietnam—right into the heart of war—and the life they are sent to defend has reached its pinnacle for all three men (and their pals)—now, they’re all on their own.

Holding that bullet between thumb and forefinger might be the best Mike and his buddies ever have it. Only he seems aware of this, and it’s Mike who, either despite or because of this awareness, makes it back home to Pennsylvania more whole—both physically and mentally—than many other soldiers. This includes Steven, who loses his legs, and Nick, who ends up facing Mike in the film’s penultimate game of Russian roulette (a game which, incidentally, had no role in the real Vietnam war according to a Pulitzer-winning war reporter. This account and controversy are worthy exploring, though I haven’t done so in this piece).

Does this self-awareness make Michael stronger than the other characters? Maybe it does; at the very least, he knows why he’s trying to survive Vietnam—home might not be much, but it’s something.

Nick, on the other hand, goes AWOL and wanders through Saigon playing his chances at Russian roulette. He sends his winnings to Steven, and this tells us—like many a noir character—it’s not about the money for Nick, not the way his brain’s been wired from his time as a prisoner-of-war.

It’s not so much that Nick has a suicide or death wish. No—it’s more likely that he’s realized the truth of his existence: There isn’t much to go back to, and defending home at the cost he’s seen and paid is, well, absolutely insane.

So why not forget the whole thing and play a dangerous game with other tortured souls?

It’s a more exciting—if tragic—personal story, that’s for damn sure.

So, here we have it—the absolute heart of The Deer Hunter: These characters, and the story itself, is postwar American noir at its finest. We’ve got doomed protagonists, a system built to stifle the best among us, enough loaded guns for a showdown, and a ‘might win’ feeling running through the plot like fool’s gold in a slab of granite.

The real tragedy in this film isn’t Nick’s death or the loss of Steven’s legs; the real tragedy is the revelation that these men—the best among us for their work ethic, courage, and camaraderie—are born to lose. After the war, if they aren’t crippled physically, they will toil in the steel mill while rich men make trades on the backs of their labor.

The modern world—like the world in the noir story—is stacked against Michael, Nick, and Steven.

These characters manufacture the steel used to build war machines like tanks, bombers, choppers, and ships. And yet, it’s these same men who must face the Viet Cong—it’s these men who must face the madness of war, and the desolate horror of returning home to a world built on the ceaseless machinations of profit and white collar greed.

If that isn’t noir, then noir—today and forever—is dead.

Matt Phillips is the author of Redbone. His novel Three Kinds of Fool is due out from All Due Respect Books in August. 

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