The Departed

The Departed (2006)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: William Monahan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen


This will likely be an unpopular opinion, but The Departed is lesser Scorsese. At the time of its release, the film was seen as a return to form for the auteur, who had been working away from the crime genre for the most part, spending much of the late 1990s and early 2000s making historical epics and biopics. The film won four Academy Awards, including a Best Director award, Scorsese’s first, and a Best Picture award. At the time of its release, I was as on board as anyone else with the opinion that The Departed is, in fact, a great movie, and that it was justified in being the film that finally brought home a much coveted Oscar for the master, Scorsese. I saw the film at least twice in the theater, and purchased it on DVD as soon as it was released. In the fall of 2006 and into 2007, The Departed was my favorite film. It distilled Scorsese’s directorial trademarks into easily identifiable cues, it featured a talented and broad cast, and it certainly did feel like a return to form for the filmmaker who had been making much less intense, more personal projects. However, with over ten years to reflect back on the film, not only does The Departed feel somewhat less essential than it did back then, it doesn’t even strike me as a particularly good film. I don’t hate The Departed, but the film has a myriad of problems that keep it from being a regular in my viewing rotation, despite my initial fondness for it upon its release.

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An adaptation of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed is an elaborate game of cat and mouse, with both the police and the criminals inserting moles into each other’s organizations. The film shows us that Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) has been grooming Colin Sullivan (Damon) since childhood to infiltrate the Massachusetts State Police as a mole. Eventually Sullivan works his way into the Special Investigations Unit, specifically tasked with bringing down Costello and his crime syndicate. At the same time, the SIU has groomed their own mole, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), a cadet in the state police academy, to go undercover inside the Costello organization to aid in their investigation. The two men proceed down parallel paths of deceit and double cross until they eventually become aware of the existence of the other. Sullivan and Costigan attempt to find out each other’s identity, while also maintaining the tenuous balance required to protect their own cover. Eventually, the ruse begins to unravel as other members of Costello’s crew are revealed to be informants, and Costello himself admits to being an FBI informant for years. The layers of deceit are thick, and, ultimately, neither Costigan nor Sullivan is able to reconcile his duplicitous nature.

That seems like an overly simple plot summary for a film that features as many plot twists and turns as The Departed, but I feel that much of the film’s complexity is actually facile. The Departed features many of the hallmarks of Scorsese’s cinematic output, but it feels more like a paint-by-numbers than a fully fleshed out project. The film utilizes Scorsese’s trademark soundtracking, and his memorable insertion of classic rock songs into key moments in the film, but for the first time, the trick feels gimmicky. It’s all style over substance, with its flashy patina masking the fact that its narrative is actually significantly less complex than it appears. While the film that Scorsese is adapting, Infernal Affairs, is a taught, grimy crime thriller, The Departed is an overly-serious, bloated piece of work. The film lacks the panache and the humor of Scorsese’s earlier crime films such as Goodfellas, and is a worse film for it. The Departed proceeds with an air of self-importance that it never really earns, providing solid entertainment, but striving through heavy-handed symbolism at a moralism that never really feels fleshed out. The film’s denouement attempts to bring all the pieces of its sprawling narrative back together, but it does so in a way that leaves me feeling unsatisfied. The characters find their resolutions too easily and conveniently, if not often too peacefully, with the film too readily insisting on a neat conclusion in a world that’s been established to exist in moral grey areas. Rather than untying the Gordian knot that its narrative has attempted to tie, The Departed’s final act opts to hack it to pieces with the blade of coincidence and deus ex machina. Its closing shot is almost inexcusably heavy-handed, spoon feeding the audience the symbolic import of its image.

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That isn’t to say that The Departed doesn’t have its redeeming qualities. It does have some elements of genuine intrigue. The film often harkens back to Scorsese’s explosively violent work of the 1990s, with Costigan in particular showing himself to be an able vehicle of violent retribution. The scenes in which he is easing into his role as a soldier in Costello’s organization are some of the film’s most interesting, because they leave a question as to how much of the violence is Costigan playing out a role and how much of it stem from his latent destructive urges. DiCaprio plays this role well, and this seems to be one of the first indications that he would go on to become more than just a teen heartthrob. His Costigan is paranoid, conflicted, and violent, attempting to stay one step ahead of both Costello and Sullivan, while maintaining his own sanity in the face of the pressures of living a double life. DiCaprio plays his role with an appropriately desperate edge, a manic energy pervading his performance that will become familiar in his performances over the next decade. He doesn’t reach the heights of performance that he did in his earlier pairing with Scorsese, The Aviator, but DiCaprio is one of the lone bright spots in the film from a performance standpoint. Perhaps DiCaprio stands out so much because his counterpart in the film, Damon, seems to be phoning in his performance. He doesn’t seem to bring any of the psychological or emotional complexity to his role that DiCaprio does, and he relies on his Boston accent to do much of the work in his performance. Damon is solid, but he doesn’t shine.

Nicholson is a disappointment, as well. Solidly into his hammy later career, Nicholson’s Costello is a stereotype of a gangster. He seethes cruelty and anger, but rarely steps outside of this emotional register. In a film where the arch criminal is revealed to be an FBI informant, Nicholson doesn’t bring any moral ambiguity or nuance to the character. It isn’t that the performance is poor, but with a character as dynamic as Costello, Nicholson should be able to do more. Costello seems more sleazy pervert than criminal mastermind, and his decision to become a rat doesn’t seem to wear on him psychologically in any way. He’s simply acting out of self-preservation, and any larger examination of the character’s psyche is left out. This kind of psychological short-shrifting is fine for a minor or even a supporting character, but when you’re trying to make the type of prestige film that The Departed badly wants to be, a bit more probing into the personal life and mind of one of your three principles is required. I’m ok with a performance strictly being for comedic effect or shock value, and I think that Mark Wahlberg’s bombastic Sgt. Dignam is exactly that and I love it, but you have to expect more character development from one of the three main characters in a prestige drama.

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I’m not totally certain when the bloom came off of the rose for me with The Departed. As I said, it’s a movie that I wholly enjoyed and sang the praises of for a full year after its release. Maybe it was after seeing Infernal Affairs a couple years after The Departed and realizing what a tight, well made thriller the original film is. Maybe it was simply that the lengthy interim between my last viewing of The Departed and this viewing for my post had cast the film in the positive light of nostalgia for me, although I don’t think so. I think that, truly, I always knew that The Departed wasn’t the great movie that it purports itself to be, but I got carried away in the newness of it because it really is a fun movie a lot of the time. I certainly have issues with the film, but it has some enthralling moments of action that break through and grab the viewer. The overall package doesn’t warrant the sort of high praise the film often receives, but there are fleeting instances of a great crime drama within The Departed. Unfortunately, they’re so buried in the artificially complex narrative twisting and turning that the film insists upon that they rarely get the chance to connect in a meaningful way.


Deliverance (1972)

Dir. John Boorman

Written by: James Dickey (from his novel)

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox


Deliverance is a film that needs little introduction. In the 45 years since its release, the film has gained notoriety and popularity, chiefly due to the shocking nature of one memorable scene. While the film’s rape scene might be its most memorable, and is certainly its most graphic, the rest of the film operates on a quieter, more cerebral level. It establishes a sense of dread from the opening scene, painting its four protagonists as not just fish out of water, but as prey to be hunted in an unfamiliar environment. Though it may not always be associated with the genre, to me Deliverance is very obviously a horror film. Boorman utilizes many tropes of the horror genre to build suspense and enhance a sense of impending catastrophe. I’m sure for audiences at the time, the film’s graphic depiction of sexual violence was shocking, but watching the film from a modern standpoint, I was more taken with the more subtle attempts of the film to disturb the audience. Though the film largely speaks to a set of anxieties specific to its time period, I still found it to be a tense, entertaining thriller.

Deliverance concerns itself with a weekend canoeing trip that goes completely and horrifically wrong. Lewis (Reynolds), Ed (Voight), Bobby (Beatty), and Drew (Cox) have made the trip from Atlanta into the Georgia backwoods to canoe the Cahulawassee River before it is dammed and the entire river valley is turned into a lake. The film begins with the group finding some locals to drive their cars down river so that they can pick them up after their canoe trip. While trying to secure drivers, the group displays consistently condescending attitudes towards the hill folk that they encounter, although Drew attempts to engage with a young boy, the two performing a call and response version of “Dueling Banjos” in one of the film’s more famous scenes. Having secured drivers, the crew split up into pairs and launch their canoes into the river. After some time, they are separated, with Bobby and Ed’s canoe running aground. A pair of hunters comes upon the men and forces them into the woods at gunpoint where they tie Ed to a tree and one of the hunters humiliates and rapes Bobby, forcing him to “squeal like a piggy.” Lewis comes to their rescue, shooting one of the hunters with an arrow, while the other escapes. After some debate on what to do with the body, Lewis convinces the group that they have to hide the body, hoping that when the river is damned all evidence of their crime will be at the bottom of the lake. With the murdered hunter buried, the group continues down the river, but when Drew is shot and suddenly falls into the river, it is apparent that they are being stalked by the second hunter. The three remaining friends are caught up in some rapids, and they lose sight of Drew’s body in the chaos. With one of their canoes shattered, Lewis suffering a broken leg, and a vengeful hunter stalking them, the group is left hoping that they’ll simply survive the experience. While they do manage to make it out of the river alive, the traumatic weekend trip leaves them all scarred.

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The four principles do a great job of carrying the movie. Though Reynolds and Voight receive top billing, Beatty and Cox are memorable in their screen debuts, and the film really is driven by the dynamic of this central ensemble. The characters’ individual personalities all get moments to shine throughout the film. Cox gets the least amount of screentime, but the careful, worrisome Drew is an important foil for Reynolds’s cavalier Lewis. Though he’s overruled, Drew’s logical insistence that they take the murdered hunter’s body to the authorities is an important plea for civility and trust in the rule of law over a descent into savagery. Lewis, on the other hand, is the most accomplished outdoorsman of the group, and he represents a sort of adopted primitivism, a desire to master the natural world rather than exist in balance with it. The character benefits from Reynolds’s star persona at the time, with Lewis gaining a perceived ruggedness from the actor’s “man’s man” reputation. Beatty’s Bobby is the weakest member of the group, and he’s often emasculated, not just by the locals that they encounter, but by his friends in the group as well. He’s a typically effete city dweller, cowed by both the savagery of the river and the natural world, as well as the people who inhabit it. Bobby is offered up as a sacrificial lamb, given to appease the wrath of nature at the intrusion of these outsiders, particularly in the context of his being the victim of a rape. Finally, Voight’s character, Ed, is intended to be the point of audience identification. Ed has more everyman qualities than any of his friends, and by the film’s conclusion he has risen into the role of the “hero,” although he’s shown to be less inherently heroic than simply acting on survival instinct. Voight’s performance is probably the most dynamic of the film, as well. Though the film calls for all of the cast to provide memorable, emotive performances, Voight’s range is the widest, with Ed having to take on several different roles in the group throughout the course of the film.

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Across the board, the performances feel genuine, which is probably the result of the film’s shoestring budget. Deliverance was shot on a budget of $2 million, which necessitated the cast performing most of their own stunts, as well as the shoot proceeding without any insurance. The fear seen on the actors’ faces is real, as they were actually canoeing through swift rapids, or performing other dangerous stunts. This authenticity translates to the screen and heightens the terror of the film. As someone who is afraid of heights, I’m always on the edge of my seat during the scene when Ed scales a sheer cliff face under cover of darkness to get the jump on the hunter who has been stalking their group. With the knowledge that Voight actually made the climb, watching the scene is panic-inducing. The film’s tight budget also necessitated some directorial choices that increase its horror quotient for me. Though one of its most enduring scenes involves the song “Dueling Banjos,” there is little other music in the film. I don’t know for sure if this choice was made due to budget concerns, but there is no credit for an official film score, and the little music that there is in Deliverance is eerily sparse. Long periods of the film proceed with just natural sound effects, with non-diegetic musical cues popping up on the soundtrack only occasionally. The effect is an all-encompassing sense of dread. The river is the film’s most consistently running soundtrack, and its persistence becomes ominous and monstrous by film’s end.

Though the film’s horror stems directly from the dichotomy of city culture vs. country culture, a struggle that is most graphically played out in the rape scene, the underlying and related dichotomy of civilization vs. the natural world is very much in play throughout the film. The real monster in the film is the raging (and fictional) Cahulawassee River, which brutally and unforgivingly tosses the canoe party, representatives of modern civilization, around like rag dolls. The occasion of the canoe trip is the impending damming of the river, a very literal example of man exerting his will on the natural world. For Lewis, the damming of the river represents the loss of a river that he has enjoyed rafting upon in the past, but for the locals who the group encounters, the damming of the river represents the impending loss of their livelihoods, properties, and ways of life. This fact is touched upon in passing throughout the film, but, to me, it is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. Deliverance doesn’t see or present any of the country folk in the film as sympathetic or even relatable characters, instead using stereotypes of the unthinking, unfeeling bumpkin to paint them as the film’s human villains. Obviously the actions represented in the film are heinous, but they are also symptomatic of individuals lashing out at intruders in the face of the eradication of their homeland and culture. Lewis, Ed, Bobby, and Drew are the embodiment of encroaching “civilization,” engaging in cultural tourism while openly mocking the denizens of the culture and place that they’ve traveled to enjoy one last time. The two hunters who rape Ed are reprehensible, but the rest of the locals in the film are shown to be in pitiable circumstances and they receive nothing but mocking cruelty from the protagonists. Early in the film, we see children who are obviously malnourished, living in squalor, but the film does little to prod its audience to empathize with these characters. Sometimes it goes so far as to textually mock them, with the mute banjo playing boy’s obvious mental impairment implying that perhaps he is the product of inbreeding. I’m not suggesting that the film’s hill folk should be seen as the heroes or even the central characters of the film, but their obvious disenfranchisement is something that Deliverance isn’t interested in exploring beyond a cursory glance, which is a shame to me.

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Like many of the films that I’ve been writing about for this project, Deliverance isn’t a movie that I watch often at all, nor is it one that I am likely to watch again any time soon. When I mentioned to a coworker that I had watched Deliverance that morning before coming into work, his response was, “Why?” which, honestly, is probably the right response to someone telling you that they started their day by watching this film. It’s a very good movie, but it’s not one that is particularly pleasant to watch, or one that really lends itself to repeat viewings. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy watching it again after a decade or so, but it doesn’t feel necessary. It’s an intense viewing experience every time, and the film is often very beautiful, highlighting the natural beauty of Georgia, but Deliverance also established and cemented several negative stereotypes about Appalachian people and Southerners that I don’t enjoy seeing. Maybe I’m sensitive to this depiction because I grew up in West Virginia, a place that is typically misunderstood, neglected, and forgotten, until it’s needed to be the butt of an incest or personal hygiene joke. Deliverance is a fine movie, but I cringe when I hear “Dueling Banjos” played in any other media, because I know that it will soon be followed by a crude joke featuring some toothless yokel meant to represent an entire culture. Part of working through this project and going back to so many movies that I haven’t seen in a long time has reminded me to take films where they are, try to appreciate them for what they offer, and not seeking to too much impose my own worldview into my critical evaluation of a film. Of course, that’s often an impossibility and I don’t shy away from letting my ideologies or opinions guide my writing; this is my blog after all, and I’m largely writing it to please myself. However, I strive to be objective and find something to enjoy or take interest in with every film that I write about. So, in that spirit, I’m taking Deliverance for what it is, a fine thriller with some very good performances, but not one that I’ll be inclined to watch ever again.

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Dir. Michael Cimino

Written by: Deric Washburn

Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage


The Deer Hunter stands as a landmark of 1970s filmmaking, winning critical and audience acclaim, and enduring throughout the years as one of the representative filmic explorations of the Viet Nam War and its effects on individuals and on American society, as a whole. The film is a thoughtfully crafted ensemble drama that goes further than many films of the time to depict the lasting horrors of war, and the mental scars that stayed with American soldiers long after they had returned home from Viet Nam. The Deer Hunter was a must see for me when I was a teen, as I was a big proponent of 1970s American films, the movement that is often referred to as the New Hollywood, and this film is often seen as one of the defining films of the movement. The movie has remained on my shelf for all these years since, going largely unwatched. However, when I sat down to watch the film again, over a decade since my last viewing, I was struck by the way that it exists in my head as a film of impressions. The Deer Hunter’s iconic scenes are instantly memorable: its Viet Nam scenes are gritty and intense, while the scenes back home in rural Pennsylvania are light and airy, with an undercurrent of sadness and nostalgia. The interstitial segments of the film were hazier, but they were ultimately the moments that made the film for me upon this viewing. The Deer Hunter’s cinematic climaxes are epic, but it’s the quieter moments that have been resonating with me over the last few days as I’ve turned the film over in my mind.

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The Deer Hunter opens in the late 1960s in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a mill town just south of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River. The film follows three young men, Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Stevie (Savage), as they prepare to leave their home in the rust belt for deployments in Viet Nam. The film takes its time getting the principles to the war, with Cimino carefully establishing a sense of place in Clairton, and introducing the viewer to the protagonists’ friends and families, as well as their way of life in this typical working class American town. Much of the film’s first act is taken up with a beautifully shot wedding scene, in which the relationships between the friends is established, as well as their anxieties on the outset of setting off for war. Cimino uses these early scenes to establish a holy triumvirate of family, God, and country that rules the lives of his characters, informing their sense of identity. When the film finally arrives in Viet Nam, the pace and intensity are ratcheted up significantly, with all three men being captured by the Viet Cong and forced to play Russian roulette, as their sadistic captors revel in their misery. While these scenes are some of The Deer Hunter’s most memorable, the Viet Nam section of the film is actually quite brief, with Mike quickly leading a daring escape from the makeshift prison. While he and Stevie eventually return stateside, attempting to adjust to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of war, Nick is pulled further into a seedy world of underground betting, where human life is devalued and thrown away. Although Nick is the character who is most obviously lost to his experience in Viet Nam, by the film’s end, it’s clear that all of these characters, even the ones who stayed home during the war, have lost something.

This film is an epic in every sense of the word. It is over three hours in length, and sets out to depict the ravages of war, not just on the individual, but on society as a whole. Cimino famously clashed with producers and his studio about the film’s runtime and its controversial, graphic, and intimate depictions of violence, but ultimately the film that he delivered feels important and necessary in its scope. The Deer Hunter has the impact that it does precisely because Cimino takes his time to establish a sense of place and normalcy early in the film through the scenes set in Clairton. Without the deliberate pacing of the film’s first third, the overall psychological and societal devastation that the Viet Nam war has on these characters wouldn’t be as profound. The locations, the traditions, and the people in these scenes will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in small town America. Cimino revels in showing these working class traditions up close, dropping in on intimate moments in both churches and bars, letting his camera casually investigate the culture of this particular Southwest Pennsylvania hamlet. The lengthy wedding scene that dominates the film’s first act is a beautifully shot celebration of this type of specific small town tradition. Traditional conservative values of religious piety and family togetherness are fully on display, and traditional gender roles and machismo are reinforced throughout the scene, but cracks start to show in the façade of traditionalism through the anxieties that Stevie, Nick, and, especially, Mike, begin to subtly express regarding their impending deployment. As the wedding reception continues and the men get drunker, their reservations about leaving their familiar homes for a killing field on the other side of the globe become ever more apparent, acted out demonstratively against a backdrop of ostentatiously draped American flags. The film’s opening section lays the groundwork of normalcy that will be eroded by the toll that the Viet Nam war takes on all of the characters.

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When the film abruptly shifts its focus to Viet Nam, the pace quickens and the intensity is ratcheted up, dropping the audience in country immediately before Mike, Nick, and Stevie are captured and held as POWs by the Viet Cong. While the cast does good work early in the film depicting the internal turmoil that the characters are experiencing regarding their deployment, De Niro and Walken, in particular, shine in the Viet Nam segments. De Niro plays Mike with a determination bordering on insanity, born of a promise that he made to see his friends home safe from the war. The intensity of his performance is matched and exceeded by Walken, who internalizes the trauma that his character has experienced, and who plays Nick as a shell of a man in the film’s second half. While he doesn’t play Nick with the outwardly demonstrative aggression of De Niro’s Mike or the histrionic emotional register of Savage’s Stevie, Walken’s Nick is unforgettable, hollow and haunted. His characteristically stilted line delivery benefits this performance, as well, as Nick seems to be communicating on a different emotional and cognitive level than the characters around him. All three of the actors are tasked with giving dynamic performances that require them to portray genuine celebration and happiness during the film’s beginning and slowly descending into emotional vacancy by the film’s end. They all deliver admirably, making clear the subtle shifts in personality and emotionality that the trauma of imprisonment and the constant threat of death has rendered in their characters.

The supporting cast provides solid work around the film’s stars, as well. The three protagonists leave behind them a network of friends and family in Clairton, and the film’s third act, with Mike’s return home from the war, shows the ways that the war has changed people on the home front. A very young Meryl Streep plays Linda, Nick’s, and eventually Mike’s, girlfriend. Initially, the character was poorly scripted, and Cimino encouraged Streep to flesh the character out, bringing her own ideas and feelings into the performance. Streep’s talent is obvious, as she’s able to easily convey without words the sort of pained longing that war brides must always experience. Linda has to stay strong, working her job at the Giant supermarket, and keeping up the house that she, Nick, and Mike shared, without any knowledge of if or when her lover might return. When Mike finally does return home, it’s obvious that his time away has seen Linda go from a happy, smiling young woman to a ball of frayed nerves. Streep’s performance is full of the little details that communicate more information about a character than voice over or monologue ever can. The way that she clings to Mike’s arm when he walks her to work, or the way that she perches in her chair after all the guests have left from Mike’s aborted homecoming party give a window into the quiet suffering that her character has had to endure. John Cazale is equally strong in his final performance. He plays Stan, a friend who didn’t go to war with Mike, Nick, and Steve, and who can never really understand the experiences that they’ve shared. Stan’s blustery bravado and penchant for pistol-toting provide a screen for the fact that he was too cowardly to go to war like his friends. Cazale’s cocksure performance belies the fact that his health was rapidly deteriorating from cancer. He wouldn’t live to see the film’s completion, but his final performance offers a nuanced look at the crisis of American masculinity during the 1970s. Stan is a typical working class American man of his time, attempting to paper over his personal inadequacies with a hard-drinking, hard-headed lifestyle, while at the same time, the nation as a whole was struggling to reconfigure its own identity in the face of military embarrassment abroad and societal upheaval and the beginning of the end of American industrial dominance at home.

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More than just a film about war or violence, The Deer Hunter is really an elegy for a way of life that was rapidly coming to an end at the close of the 1970s. Real life towns like Clairton all over the rust belt were beginning to die out, as steel mills and factories closed, and the livelihood of the American worker was challenged. The trauma of war may have broken Nick, and driven him down a rabbit hole of destruction and nihilism in Viet Nam, but Mike’s difficulty in assimilating to civilian life shows that Nick may have never been able to come home anyway. The town that they left wasn’t the same one that Mike returns to at the film’s end, and the prospects for him finding peace and meaning in the future seem bleak. The Deer Hunter’s final scene is beautiful, as Nick’s family and friends gather together to mourn his passing, and they all join in a slow, mournful rendition of “God Bless America,” as they share a meal together. Though it’s Nick that they’re ostensibly mourning, they are also recognizing the passing of a way of life, a societal sea change. The war is the catalyst for change in the film, but it’s also symptomatic of a larger shifting of values and lifestyles both in the film, and in the society into which it was released in 1978. The final scene’s tone is nostalgic, but also cynical, as if Cimino recognized the American dream had long since died out, and the patriotism expressed by his characters as they sing “God Bless America,” is an attempt to grasp at the remaining straws of normalcy.

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The Deer Hunter is a difficult movie. The strains of its production and the fights between Cimino and his studio are apparent when watching the film. I don’t mean that the end result seems flawed or complicated as a result, but that the tension and passion involved in creating this film are palpable in the final cut. Ultimately, it seems that Cimino was able to keep much of what his studio deemed objectionable in the final cut, and The Deer Hunter is a better film for it. It’s a film that attempts to depict one of the most fraught and difficult portions of American history, and its broad scope allows it to present the central problems of the period in multiple lights. The Deer Hunter is unique among war films in the amount of attention that it pays to the home front, and the parallels that it draws between war and overall societal downfall. The film is doubly difficult in that it doesn’t provide any real answers to the societal problems that it documents, instead leaving its viewer with a profound sense of sadness and cynicism. However, it is a film that is well worth watching. Viewers sitting down to enjoy a war movie might be turned off by the film’s initial hesitance to deliver on the promise of action, but to really appreciate The Deer Hunter, you have to get a sense of the entire tapestry that Cimino has woven.

The Decline of Western Civilization

The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)

Dir. Penelope Spheeris


Punk rock changed my life when I was about 13 years old. I was in junior high school, and because I was in the band at my school, I was able to opt out of taking a traditional music elective. I was able to spend that period of the day practicing the saxophone, but I also had to write a research paper on a topic of my choice by the end of the semester. Being a rock and roll obsessed preteen, I decided that I would write my research paper on “Punk Rock,” a style of music that I was only aware of as a concept. I didn’t really know what punk music was supposed to be, but something about the phrase was alluring to me, and I decided I would seek out its origin. Like any good academic, my research began at the library, where I found Legs McNeil’s oral history of the birth of punk, Please Kill Me, and devoured it. The book turned me on what it meant to be a punk, and to the forefathers of the punk scene in New York City: Richard Hell, The Dead Boys, Blondie, but most importantly, it introduced me to the Ramones. I’d been playing guitar for a couple of years at this point, having formed a band with some friends the year before. I was into classic rock at the time, mostly listening to bands like Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, or Kiss, but when I first encountered the Ramones, my musical life was altered forever. Their buzzsaw guitars, breakneck pace, and Joey Ramone’s garbled vocal delivery were the only thing that mattered to me after that. It was perfect music, perfect in its simplicity and its relatability, perfect in its attitude and its outsiderness. The Ramones kicked down the door to so many other bands and ideas, and punk rock became my life. It changed the way I wanted to play music and it helped introduce me to ideas that would create the core of my identity during those formative teen years.

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As I’ve gotten older, my musical tastes have expanded again. I sometimes even go entire days without listening to Minor Threat, although almost never more than a couple in a row. While it might not be as outwardly obvious from my dress or demeanor, I’ve never lost my affinity for punk rock and its core ideals and values. The devotion of the music to authenticity, fierce independence, and anti-authoritarianism still endears it to my inner punk, and still keeps me striving to maintain those ideals in my everyday life. For me living your life punk has less to do with fashion, or even music, and more to do with action. It means living your life with integrity, maintaining your independence and dignity, and not bowing to forces of larger oppression. But of course, the history of the music and the culture is important, too, and it was with that in mind that I purchased Penelope Spheeris’s seminal punk rock documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, when it was rereleased on Blu-Ray, along with its sequels, a few years back.

Spheeris’s three Decline films explore the punk and metal scenes in Los Angeles during the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The first film in the trilogy, released in 1980, combines concert footage with candid interviews from members of the bands and the scene, providing a window into the burgeoning Los Angeles hardcore punk scene of the late 1970s. Many of the bands featured here, including Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, and X, are considered the architects of a particular brand of hardcore music. West coast punk and hardcore had emerged as a snarling, visceral answer to the artier, more bohemian punk scene of New York City that had been influenced by the Warhol Factory scene. The music was faster, darker, more aggressive. The attitude was even more nihilistic and violent, with the punk scene providing a layer of crust and grime hidden away beneath the glamor of Hollywood. Long out of print, the film is now available for the first time on home video, and it’s a good thing because The Decline of Western Civilization is a fantastic document of early punk history. The film is alive with the energy of punk and Spheeris is able to perfectly capture the essence of the music and the scene in her film.

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The concert footage in the film is a maelstrom, with Spheeris and her cameramen inserting themselves into the midst of surging crowds of punks. The handheld camera is jostled and tilted, capturing close ups of sneering faces and flailing arms and legs, clad in leather and spikes. The camera also shares the stage with the bands, who are equally as expressive and unpredictable. Like the music scene it’s documenting, the film feels dangerous; violence can, and does, break out at any time. Punks fight with other punks, bouncers fight with punks, punks fight with the bands, and the whole time the cameras continue to roll, picking up ambient sound amid the chaos. The film manages to perfectly simulate the experience of being at a punk rock show, and it’s the perfect introduction to many of these classic bands. The concert footage is rare in its intimacy and its quality. Despite being shot in such an inhospitable environment, the film looks fantastic. Before seeing The Decline of Western Civilization, I hadn’t seen such early live footage of some of my favorite bands in such high definition. You can get a feel for west coast hardcore by listening to Circle Jerks’ debut album Group Sex, but there’s something magical about watching a young Keith Morris running off the stage to fight a punk who had charged the stage, making a circle around the club, and then jump back on stage and grab the microphone in time to deliver a final chorus of “Back Against the Wall.” It’s a perfect experience of the chaotic, violent energy that existed in the early Los Angeles punk scene.

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Though she doesn’t include interviews with all of the bands featured in the documentary, Spheeris’s interview segments with Black Flag, X, and Darby Crash of Germs are all well done and help to illustrate the diversity of the bands within the scene. Her interview style is guided but not invasive. She lets each band or individual tell their own story in their own words, while maintaining enough of a focus to draw out a coherent narrative of punk rock in Los Angeles at the end of the 1970s. The bands’ communal lifestyles are highlighted in the interviews, as Spheeris asks Ron Reyes and Robo from Black Flag to give her a tour of the small two room squat that they share inside an old church, which also doubles as the band’s rehearsal space. While it seems that Black Flag and Germs are living hand to mouth, not getting paid for gigs, and largely shacking up wherever they can manage to find a place to rest their heads, other bands featured on the documentary are obviously having more success. X is shown to be a band that is in high demand and is actually courted by the local clubs for shows, while bands such as Germs or Fear are banned from clubs regularly due to the violence and chaos that regularly breaks out at their shows. Seeing a cross section of the lifestyles of many different groups helps to illustrate the striation and variation among these bands. Although they all seem to be somewhat friendly with one another, often name dropping members of various other bands in their interviews, there is an obvious hierarchy and a fairly wide variation among their lifestyles and musical styles. Crash is shown as a tortured genius, unable to extricate himself from his patterns of substance abuse and speeding towards his own demise, while Exene and John Doe of X both seem more mature and more able to handle the pressures of being a top band in a scene that is starting to emerge. For the most part, these bands and their members would go on to international fame, but this glimpse into their everyday lives is an insightful look into the day-to-day struggles that would shape their version of punk rock.

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In her follow up films, Spheeris would delve deeper into the heavy music scene of Los Angeles. Decline II focuses on the glam and heavy metal scene popping up in the 1980s around the clubs of the Sunset Strip, while Decline III, which was never released until the Blu-Ray reissue of the trilogy, depicts the lives of the scores of runaway and homeless punk youths who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Both films are worth checking out, with each having its own merits and standing apart from the original documentary by shifting the focus slightly. The final film in the trilogy is perhaps the most moving and heartbreaking of the three, as it depicts the fun energy of punk that was present in the first film being twisted up into an empty nihilism. While the punks of The Decline of Western Civilization may not have had much hope or much optimism, they seemed to genuinely be enjoying their lifestyle, while Spheeris’s final look in on the scene finds it devoid of any shred of positivity. Although I have roughly defined what being a punk means to me, the spirit of punk rock is a nebulous thing. Depending on when and why a person found themselves drawn to the music, they’ll form their own opinions of what punk is and how it can best serve their life. For me, discovering punk rock as a small town kid in the late 1990s was a new path to channel my aggression and frustration with the institutions in my life. I was a young malcontent, staunchly anti-authoritarian, and punk rock gave me a framework within which to lash out. I’ve really only gone into any detail on the first film in her Decline trilogy, but the fact that Spheeris could make three films that all look at the punk rock ethos in a different decade speaks to the amorphous, constantly evolving nature of the scene. Born of a certain set of circumstances and frustrations, punk rock has changed through the years to reflect the anxieties of each passing generation. In its most pure form, punk should be opposed to strict rigidity and therefore will always be accessible, ready to be discovered and recontextualized, shaped into the vessel that it’s needed to be. Punk rock arrived in my life at the perfect time, and I hope that through the preservation of documents of its early history, like The Decline of Western Civilization, it will do that for generations of angry kids to come.