What do you say about The Deer Hunter? It’s just so good. I suppose the most striking aspect of the film for me was the Russian roulette theme. As metaphor for war, especially such a difficult and controversial war, Russian roulette is so perfect. Each time we go into war as a country, each time a person is deployed, we play Russian roulette with our lives, with our “honor,” with our families, with everything. What is there to prove? What does a person prove by going to war, by playing Russian roulette with his life? One shot, and Nick is dead. But why does Nick want to die so badly? Why can’t he go home and deal with life after war? Maybe he realizes the game has already been played out—that by playing at all, he has already chosen his fate.
This was my first opportunity to see this film, and admittedly, from the beginning, I couldn’t quite grasp the significance of the title, of the deer hunter theme. But as the Russian roulette sequences played out it became clearer and clearer. When DeNiro’s character, Michael, first vaingloriously states his belief in “one shot,” in reference to killing a deer in a single attempt, it seems like a noble idea. But when the idea of one shot is applied to human life in the Russian roulette sequences, the whole theme changes. In some ways I think this film is addressing life in general. We literally have one attempt—one shot—and what is the point of wasting it? What is the point of wasting our own lives, or worse, the lives of others over conflicts that no one even believes in? This film really made the problems of the Vietnam War seem relevant for me, even three decades after it was released.