But, this is the last day of work for Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken, an Oscar winner here for Best Supporting Actor), and Steven (John Savage). They will be heading to Vietnam to fulfill their patriotic duty. It is also Steven’s wedding day. We see his bride, Angela (Rutanya Alda) getting ready for the wedding. The movie uses image and few words to establish character and situation. Angela (maybe she is an “angel” because her love is vital to Steven’s survival?) keeps rehearsing the the simple words, “I do,” which is humorous, but also shows her nervousness. Her sideways stance in front of the mirror in her room, and her dismay at the bulge in the middle of her wedding dress tells us that she is pregnant. We later learn that Steven is a good guy, enduring a disapproving mother and the taunts of others, marrying the girl he loves even though he has never slept with her, and, is willing to raise the child that is not his.
This world here has its negative side. Linda (Meryl Streep), the maid-of-honor, is hit by her abusive alcoholic father as she readies herself for the wedding ceremony. Michael and Nick live in an old, decrepit trailer, and although Michael’s car is a Cadillac, it is from the year 1959, and the trunk can only be opened by kicking it a certain way. Nick says that Michael’s car makes him feel safe. Michael also lets Steven use his car for leaving the reception. Is Michael also an angel, suggesting the Archangel Michael? But, there is irony here, because in the end he can’t save his comrades from harm. There are trophies inside the run down trailer, which suggest a combination of success and failure. It also contains mounted deer heads, (as does the bar that belongs to their friend, John, played by George Dzundza) which show accomplished hunting but also foreshadow what will happen to Nick. The opulence of the town church, which reflects the richness of the community’s Russian Orthodox religion, contrasts with the homeless alcoholic next to the building, who drinks booze out of a brown bag. The wedding ritual, however, includes a section where royal crowns are held over the heads of the bride and groom, symbolizing how their love and faith raise them above the limitations of the material world.
Michael lives by a code that sets him apart from his pals. When they leave work after their shift, Michael comments on the cloud and sun formations, saying, “Those are sun dogs. It means a blessing on the hunter sent by the Great Wolf to his children. It’s an old Indian thing.” Stan (John Cazale, who was Streep’s romantic interest at the time, and was ill and died soon after the completion of the film) scoffs at Michael’s ways, not understanding what Michael is talking about, and does not have his friend’s focus and discipline. Michael drives his car in what seems like a dangerous manner between a wall and a truck, but he is really a cold calculator of the odds of the success of an action. He tells Nick he likes a sure thing, and doesn’t like surprises. But Nick admonishes him, telling him there is no “sure thing,” and both men’s words are relevant as the narrative unfolds.
Although Linda is Nick’s girlfriend (and even promises to marry Nick during the reception), Michael’s looks at her, and his aborted attempt at a kiss while inebriated, show he has affection for her. There is almost a menage a trois feel about them. Michael and Nick are as close as two men can be without being gay, and Nick smiles as he offers Linda to Michael for a dance. Linda leaves her father’s house and asks to stay in the men’s trailer while they are gone, emphasizing how she is part of their lives. During the festivities, a member of the elite military Green Beret force comes in for a drink. He is solemn, aloof, avoiding eye contact, and saying little. Michael, Nick and Steven acknowledge his patriotic efforts, and buy him a drink, toasting him. Nick says he hopes they will be sending him and his pals “where the bullets are flying,” and the fighting is the “worst.” The film’s attitude is “be careful what you wish for.” All the soldier says, as he raises his drink, is “Fuck it.” The men take offense, but the scene shows the contrast between naive romanticized attitudes toward combat and the disillusionment that comes from experiencing the brutality of war. The bride and groom follow a tradition of drinking wine from a vessel that splits in half, offering two separate drinking spouts. If they can sip the wine without spilling any, they will have good luck. A close-up shows a few red drops, resembling blood, soiling the wedding dress, a definite omen of what is to occur. After the celebration is over, a drunk Michael runs through town, stripping off his clothes. It may indicate that he is shedding his delineated ways, too, for a bit. However, he almost feels guilty about his actions, since he tells Nick, who catches up with him and throws a jacket over his lower body, that he “must be going out of my mind.” Nick, showing affection for his home town, says, “The whole thing. It’s right here.” He makes Mike promise that no matter what happens in Vietnam, he won’t leave Nick there. Mike must uphold this promise, one way or another.
In the mountains (these scenes were actually shot in Washington state - no mountains like these exist in Pennsylvania, nor does the elk, standing in for a deer), Michael is back in control mode. He is dressed and ready for the hunt, unlike his friends, who are still wearing their wedding clothes, and must change, while they joke around. Stan apparently is never prepared for these expeditions, and this time he forgot his boots. Michael is tired of his lack of readiness, and refuses to give Stan his extra pair. The others are agreeable, and Nick throws Stan the boots. Michael, angry, fires off a round from his rifle, like a warning shot, startling the men. In the mountains, we hear symphonic religious music, echoing that which accompanied the nuptials. This place is Michael’s church which merges him with nature in a primal religious rite, where there must be the sacrifice of the deer. Michael, according to his rules, takes the animal with one shot. The men return to town and go to John’s bar and drink a bit and act rowdy. They shake the beer cans, and spray the foam, imitating the flames of the steel mill before and the napalm to come. They then settle down and show their quiet side as they listen in silence to John’s melancholy piano playing.
Compared to the slow and expository pace of the first part of the movie, the beginning of the next section which occurs in Vietnam is quick and disorienting. Director Michael Cimino is making us feel that we are not in the comfort of home anymore. The controlled fires of the steel plant turn into an inferno of destruction as an area is bombed. We do not see how the men train or how they became separated. We only see Michael, apparently wounded, rising up from the ground to use his flamethrower to incinerate enemy soldiers who are killing villagers, including women and children. Helicopters land, and among the soldiers deployed are Nick and Steven, who are surprised to catch up with Michael. Then there is a lot of enemy troops approaching. The story quickly jumps to a prisoner-of-war hut, where the three men are now held. The pace slows to show the famous intense and violent Russian roulette sequence, where the North Vietnamese soldiers force Asians and Americans to play their deadly game while the guards bet on the outcome. This part of the movie came under criticism at the time of its release by some who called it racist. It is true that the film does portray the Vietnamese in the scenes as barbaric, but it also shows the plight of how the South Vietnamese had to experience devastating chaos. However, the focus of the movie was not to take sides in a political argument, but instead to illustrate how war perverts human decency, and to present how the horrors of this conflict impacted average Americans.
Steven is hysterical as the captors dump the bodies from the elevated floor into the area of water below the hut. He plays the game, but swerves the gun away so he is only grazed when it discharges. The guards throw him into a cage with rats where he can barely get his face above the water level. Even amid this devastating situation, Michael is the calm, calculating one. He coldly writes off Steven. He tells the terrified Nick, already showing signs of withdrawal from reality in his eyes, that they must play each other using three bullets, and convinces the enemy soldiers to use the three rounds. After inflicting almost unbearable suspense on the audience as Michael and Nick play the game, Michael uses the pistol to kill the guards, along with the help of Nick who grabs a weapon. They free Steven and drift downstream on a large tree branch. An American helicopter attempts to rescue the men, but only can retrieve Nick, as Michael and Steven fall after grabbing onto the bottom of the aircraft. Steven falls on rocks, and shatters his legs. Michael, still trying to be the savior, carries Steven on his back until they meet up with a South Vietnamese convoy. Michael leaves Steven with the soldiers. The three friends are again separated.
Back in Saigon, we find a broken Nick at a military hospital. He pulls out a picture of Linda from his wallet, trying to hang onto the world he is drifting away from. All around him are maimed soldiers and bodies waiting to be put into coffins. When an insensitive bureaucrat questions him, he says his dog tags belong to the man next to him who has lost his arms. His response shows how he is losing his individuality as he identifies with the horrors around him. He can’t even provide the names of his parents, and he cries because he is drifting away from the memories that connect him to the past that he so loved. Later, when he is released, he tries to make a phone call home, but he can’t go through with it. He becomes a ghost of his former self, caught between this world and the next, losing that which tethered him to his previous life. He tries to recreate intimacy by calling a prostitute Linda, but the scene is a depraved version of what he had with his girlfriend. He sees a man he thinks is Mike, as he is still looking for his guardian angel to possibly save him, but it is not his old friend.
While wandering the streets of Saigon a single gunshot startles him. He gravitates toward the noise and encounters a Frenchman named Julien (Pierre Segui) who is sort of a demonic talent agent for lost souls who will do dangerous things since they no longer feel alive in this world. The French were occupiers in Vietnam before the United States, and Julien’s presence indicates how the country has defeated western nations before. Nick at first resists viewing the Russian roulette game inside. Here, hopeless men play the deadly game as others bet on their survival or death. Nick picks up the gun on the table between the two players, points it at himself, and pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. Julien knows he has his new client. The devastated Nick finds himself trapped in a repetitive hell which destroyed him and from which he can’t break free. What is strange is that we see Michael among those present (all men, by the way, indicating women are not participants in this self-destructive activity). Although not as damaged as Nick, Michael, too, can’t turn away from the perverse fascination with the horrors of war, and has become a dark voyeur who, as a paying spectator, enables the perverted game to happen. He sees Nick, but can’t catch up to him before Julien drives him away.
The movie returns to America. Linda, Stan, Axel, and John prepare a party at the trailer to welcome Michael home. But, Michael tells the taxi driver to pass the trailer, and take him to a motel. He is a visitor in his own town where he lived his once happy life. He does go to the trailer and reunites with Linda the next day, but the loss of Nick, who is AWOL, is palpable. That Linda views Michael as her connection to Nick can be seen as they kiss, and she holds up a sweater she has been knitting across Michael’s chest, as if trying to recreate her fiancee. Mike has Nick’s wallet somehow, and he previously looked at Linda’s photo, which stresses how he is Nick’s surrogate. Michael says his wounds are nothing to worry about and he is fine. Linda says she has a million things to do and her job at the market is great. But, then she breaks down and starts to cry, as she later does at the back of the market, hidden away from others. There is an attempt to put on a strong face among these people, but underneath they are shaken, the people at home representing the collateral damage connected to the casualties of war.
The men go hunting again. There is the holy music in the mountains playing as Michael has a deer in his sights. But, he no longer can shoot the animal, and fires a shot into the air, saying, and then shouting, to the animal, “Okay?” He breaks his own ritual, having seen how violence leads to the atrocities of war, and how his personal code was insufficient to save his comrades. When he returns to the hunting cabin, he finds Stan pointing his gun at Axel after the latter mocks Stan’s macho posturing. Michael, outraged at Stan’s lack of understanding the impact of violence, takes Stan’s gun, leaves only one bullet in a chamber, and pulls the trigger as he point it at Stan. There is no discharge, but Michael is recreating the Russian roulette game again, not only because he can’t escape its terrible hold on him, but because he wants Stan to feel what Michael had to actually go through. The distance between Michael and his friends is stressed as they drive home and part in silence after Michael’s extreme behavior.
Mike is now able to be with Linda at the trailer, but he looks at the mounted deer head, and thinks of what his friends had to endure in Vietnam. He calls Steven and then goes to the VA hospital where Steven is staying. It is a depressing place, where the men play bingo while the number caller offers hollow words of encouragement, such as, “I’m still satisfied with what I’ve got. That wonderful life I’ve lived.” Steven has both legs amputated, and tells Michael he doesn’t want to go home, because, he, too, doesn’t “fit.” There is a dark humor to Angela’s sad denial of reality by sending Steven socks, and the wheelchair confined Steven saying being at the VA is great because they have basketball and bowling there. Steven shows Michael multiple hundred dollar bills that keep arriving from Saigon. Michael realizes that it comes from Nick, who is still alive, and who set up a means of automatically sending his earnings from playing Russian roulette to Steven. Michael feels compelled to help Steven and Angela by taking Steven back to his home.
The failure of the United States’ protracted war in South Vietnam is evident as the Asian country falls apart, and refugees flee. In the midst of the American defeat resulting from participation in a disastrous and pointless war, we have the metaphor of Russian roulette symbolizing that self-inflicted harm to itself. In addition, the Russian-named deadly game is particularly ironic for Michael and his pals, given that they share a Russian heritage. Michael returns to Vietnam,trying to find Nick. He encounters Julien, and buys into the chance of playing against Nick. When he sees his old friend, Nick doesn’t even recognize him. He has track marks on his arms, so his addiction to drugs further shows his alienation from his former self. Michael tries to pull Nick mentally out of this hellish life, talking about Nick’s beloved trees that were in the mountains where they hunted. He tells Nick that he loves him. Nick shows some emotion, like he is starting to remember. But, when the gun is placed in his hand, he looks robotic again, the connection to the violence blocking any remaining humanity. He says, “One shot,” and Michael takes these words as encouragement that Nick is remembering. But, instead, Nick points the gun to his head, and this time the gun fires, killing Nick as Michael breaks down in loud crying while holding his friend. The “one shot” has turned outward violence into a suicidal act. Nick takes the place of the deer, symbolizing how the war has pointlessly sacrificed America’s own people.
The film ends with Nick’s funeral and a joining of friends, including Angela and Steven, at John’s bar following the sad ceremony. Michael fulfilled his promise to Nick, not leaving him in Vietnam, but not in the way Michael had intended. Not much is said, as Michael keeps looking at Linda for signs of any help she may need to endure the ordeal. They try to be strong, focusing on making eggs and coffee. But, a sobbing John starts to hum and sing “God Bless America.” Then Linda picks up the song, and the others join in. It is an appropriate song, since it contains the words, “guide her,” indicating the need to steer the country on a safe path, a need as relevant as ever today.
The next film is The Contender.