Sleeper Celluloid: Real Reviews of Fake Movies

John Sayles Takes a Shot at Sacred Territory in His Controversial Remake of The Deer Hunter

Director: John Sayles; Cast: Hugh Jackman, Djimon Hounsou, Amy Adams and Ryan Gosling as Nick.

After thirteen years of back-channel dealings, Hollyweird politicking, and even one rumored murder—no charges have been filed as of yet—John Sayles’s The Deer Hunter remake is scheduled to hit theaters worldwide in late October. The controversy surrounding this film, like a category five tornado, is about to touch ground and shred the fastidious foundations of the entertainment world.

“There are several layers of inconceivable here,” commented well-known film critic David Edelstein, “One is that you would ever redo The Deer Hunter, and two is that… well, that an auteur like John Sayles would be the driving force behind it.” Earlier this week, in a particularly blunt moment outside of Mario Batali’s LA eatery, Osteria Mozza, producing icon Harvey Weinstein referred to the project as “an abomination.” He then loosened his belt two notches and moaned, “Fucking Batali. I’m stuffed,” as the valet brought his Bentley to the curb.

Other notable celebrities involved in the original film, like Robert DeNiro, and Meryl Streep, have remained mute on the topic. However, in a question regarding Michael Cimino’s selling the rights to The Deer Hunter to Sayles’s production company, a move that some insiders have commented was accomplished through dubious, strong-arm tactics, Christopher Walken said, “Wow. This is going to be beautiful in a terrible sort of way.”

I sat down with John Sayles on set, six months ago, in the mountainous Chaghai region of Pakistan, near the Afghani border. You can read the entire interview with him on my blog——once the film has been released. In this review of his film, however, I felt it important to include at least this one quote from Mr. Sayles. “I’ve never been concerned about what Hollywood might think of me. The Deer Hunter, in my opinion, is the only semi-independent film that’s ever approached perfection… and I wanted the opportunity to get inside that, mess with things and do what I wanted. At any cost.”

Unlike the original film, set in western Pennsylvania among a Russian-American community of steelworkers, Sayles’s The Deer Hunter begins in Detroit. Michael (Hugh Jackman), Steven (Djimon Hounsou), and Nick (Ryan Gosling) are lifelong friends who’ve watched their once beloved city—and as a result, their families—deteriorate around them. Sayles records the decline of their communities and this one-time mecca of industry in a breathtaking not-to-be-missed time-lapse montage that ends with Hounsou and Amy Adams, who plays the character of Angela, betrothed in a gothic style Catholic wedding.

The chemistry between Hounsou and Adams is palpable throughout the film. “The most challenging aspect of my character was pretending that I was a Catholic,” said model turned actor, Djimon Hounsou. “But Amy was amazing to work with. Even with her character being pregnant and everything, she was sexy. Maybe even sexier. I’ve got a thing for pregnant women.”

Fans of the original film will be delighted that Sayles decided to keep the theme of “one shot” in his remake, set up by the same character, this time played by Hugh Jackman. The twist, though, is that this trio of friends uses crossbows to hunt deer rather than rifles. In an interview with E!, Jackman said, “I didn’t have to do any training with the crossbow. I’m Australian.”

In order to capture Sayles’s vision for the hunting scenes, the production team laid more than a half-mile of track in the rugged and unforgiving Michigan forest near Bauer Preserve. “John wanted an eight-minute hunting sequence done in one take,” notes production designer Mark Ricker. “I thought he was joking when he told me. He wasn’t. I lost my ring finger to frostbite… but we got the shot.”

As with Cimino’s film, the performances in the hunting scene are gripping, made even more so by the incredible stunt choreography that Hounsou, Gosling, and most especially Jackman, execute flawlessly in order to kill their deer with one shot. Jackman had this to say. “There’s no CGI in that hunting scene. I shot a real deer with a real bolt from a real crossbow while Hounsou and that Gosling kid watched. I’m Australian.”

Done mostly in a series of jaw clenching close-ups, viewers are coated in layers of the three characters’ complex and emotional inner lives as Sayles’s film makes the epic leap into act two, war-torn Afghanistan.

While the war in Afghanistan is obviously an update from the original film, the story follows much of the same harrowing path, which I won’t spoil for generations of people who haven’t seen Cimino’s film. That being said, there is no dearth of the gruesome and visceral horrors of wars. Thanks to technology invented since the first film, high-speed cameras, mounted on helicopters hovering above, can follow the trajectory of a single bullet as it mangles the flesh of its targets. Much like Saving Private Ryan, the audience breathes a sigh of relief when there’s a break in the gunfire, only to move to the edge of their seats as Hounsou, Gosling, and Jackman’s characters find themselves in the worst of all possible situations—prisoners of the Taliban.

Sayles masterfully replaces Saigon with the narrow streets and dark alleys of Kabul. Shooting on location brings an unparalleled authenticity to the film, and all five senses seem to be engaged while the film is anchored in the dank and dusty haunts of this roiling Middle Eastern capital. A feature titled “Mercs for Remake Massacre” in Variety criticized Sayles’s decision to shoot in Kabul because of the amount of the budget expended on security, and even went so far as to suggest that he actually paid the Taliban a tribute to allow the film crew safe passage in the country. Sayles has never commented on the record about this, though Jackman told Variety, “I didn’t have any security. I told John I didn’t want it, that my character wouldn’t need it anyway. I dressed like a Bedouin half the time, and saw some crazy shit when I wasn’t on set. Australian. Me.”

This part of the film undoubtedly belongs to Ryan Gosling. His portrayal of the psychologically addled and damaged Nick will not be overlooked come award season. “I didn’t want to think,” said Gosling. “I just wanted to act. Controversy or no controversy, it’s not my job to think. I avoid it when at all possible, which is most of the time.”

Gosling’s complete immersion in the role is mesmerizing, and there are only a few times in the performance where there are echoes of Christopher Walken. Far from taking viewers out of the story, though, it’s clear that Gosling knew he couldn’t do better in those moments and just tried to replicate Walken’s unique take on utter desperation and depravity. “When it came to those scenes, I shut everything out and just didn’t think. Not at all. I’m not thinking right now either,” said Gosling.

Not to be forgotten is Rachel McAdams who plays Linda, Nick’s fiancé. Her every-woman persona is a perfect fit for this down-to-earth character who hopes against hope that she’ll end up at the alter with the man she loves. At a free screening in Detroit for unemployed union autoworkers, McAdams told the audience at the Q&A, “I campaigned for this role. First, it was made famous by my hero, Meryl Streep, and second I’ve been dying to work with Ryan again because of how incredible we looked together in The Notebook.”

Sayles’s film winds itself up for an astounding and graphic act three crescendo that sends audiences trembling from the theater. Private First Class, David M. Park, who saw the film on a military base outside of Kandahar, posted this message on his Facebook page, “Damn. That movie gave me nightmares, especially the last scene… if you’re still in the Stan, don’t see it. I wish I hadn’t. I can’t sleep. I keep waking up screaming, ‘One shot!'”

While the film industry illuminati publicly weigh-in with their opinions that the remake of The Deer Hunter is so-called blasphemy, they are certain to see this masterpiece in private. Sayles might have just done the impossible: taken a perfect movie of its time, updated it to the modern era, and heightened the already ageless themes of love, longing and the savagery of war.

Lead homicide detective Joe Dunster of the LAPD released a statement saying that the murder investigation with regard to the remake of The Deer Hunter is ongoing, though no charges are currently forthcoming.

Josh DuBose is a writer/performer living in Los Angeles. A Kirkwood Prize for Fiction nominee and winner of the Peter K. Hixson Memorial Scholarship, Josh's work has appeared in Zyzzva, is forthcoming in the upcoming spring issue of Bull: Men's Fiction, and is being showcased in New Emerging Voices, Los Angeles's longest running spoken word show. You can catch Josh performing at IO West in Hollywood on Wednesday nights @10:30 with King Ten.