Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Deer Hunter, statistically speaking

***SPOILERS AHOY, in this post. If you haven't seen the legendary war film The Deer Hunter and plan on doing so, don't read on.***

Actually, what I really should say is: "If you haven't seen the legendary war film The Deer Hunter and plan on doing so, don't."

Oh, but how dare I take on such a beloved film?


First, I must say I'm not just criticizing the 1978 Best Picture winner because it's reaaaaalllly long and not much happens in those three-or-so hours that I'm/you're never getting back. The story starts in a steel-mining Pennsylvania town, following five guys, three of whom are going to Vietnam soon. They ship, hell ensues, and all three become scarred forever, physically and/or mentally. It's an important point, of course -- and back in 1978, I'm sure it hit especially hard for veterans (and almost certainly still does) -- but did Michael Cimino & Co. really need all that time to say these things?

But no, my complaint isn't so much that. And it's not the gross geography FAIL that takes place -- where those Pennsylvania guys, out for one last deer-hunting trip, start out in the Appalachian Mountains ...

... then somehow warp over to Washington's Cascade Range ...

... which, as you can see, is a bit of a schlep:

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But it's not that, either. Heck, a lot of great films take place far away from where they're shot. In There Will Be Blood, the supposed California desert is really Marfa, Texas. So no, it's not that*.

*Good lord, I feel like I'm the Louise Lasser character in Bananas, explaining why I'm breaking up with Woody Allen.

Mainly, the problem is with the whole Russian Roulette thing. Not only is it a little weird, but statistically, it just doesn't add up.

It starts in a P.O.W. camp, where the Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage characters are forced to play the dangerous game. They all survive, but the experience certainly sticks with them -- so much so that a crazed Walken* skips going back home and stays in Saigon ... to play Russian Roulette professionally.

*Walken? Crazy? No way!

Naturally, De Niro heads back to 'Nam to find his friend. He does, at one of these underground Russian Roulette halls, where Walken's about to give it another shot (haha).

Now, as Norm MacDonald once said about cliff divers, it's kind of hard to make a comeback as a pro Russian Roulette player. So we can assume that Walken has been quite successful to this point. But that just doesn't make a whole lot of sense, considering the amount of time he's been in the city.

Really, it takes simple math to reach this conclusion:

Assuming the referee spins after each shot, and there's only one bullet-filled chamber, that gives you a 1-in-6 chance of losing each game, and the odds don't change unless the circumstances (number of bullets, lack of spin between shots) do. Sure, that's not a bad percentage; each, uh, "attempt" gives you an 83.3% chance of survival. And no, we do not know how many nights Walken has played the game, nor how many shots he's been forced to take each night.

Still ...

Walken's referred to as "The Famous American," meaning he's got to be making frequent appearances at these games. But this, my friends, simply is not believable. What, he's supposed to be "good" at Russian Roulette? I mean, does he try harder or something? We're expected to believe that his flip of that six-sided coin has come up good EVERY time? And then, once he and De Niro finally meet up, and Walken FINALLY remembers that "one shot" line from earlier in the movie ... THAT's when Walken loses for the first time in his career?

Sorry, not buying it.

What? What's that you say? It's symbolic? It's mythical? I have too much time on my hands and I'm taking this too seriously?

Psssh. You're just saying that because you failed math or something.

But, if you must, you can have The Deer Hunter as the best Vietnam movie ever. I'll take Apocalypse Now, which not only is simply better, but -- most importantly -- it doesn't discard the laws of probability.

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