Michael Cimino told GQ, “I would never suggest that the geography or visual environment of the film is more important than what’s going on with the people, but it’s a major factor in getting the right tone.” Robert De Niro understood that a sense of place was crucial to “The Deer Hunter,” and actually going to the locations would be an integral part of preparing for his role. The Pennsylvania setting is the heart of “The Deer Hunter.” It is what anchors the characters’ understanding of their post-war trauma.
In the film, Michael, Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) belong to a very patriotic and close-knit Russian Orthodox community that supports them going to fight in the Vietnam War. The men believe it will be no different than their favorite sport of deer hunting, which requires careful calculation and control to annihilate your target. However, the controversial Russian roulette scenes reveal that war is a chaotic, traumatizing nightmare.
When Michael and Steven return home, they are unable to share their horrific wartime experiences with friends and family: Michael resists the community’s perception of him as a hero and Steven loses his legs and refuses to see his wife. Nick, on the other hand, descends into Saigon’s gambling underworld. These types of working-class young men were the backbone of the Vietnam War. By immersing us in the particulars of their quiet hometown, the audience gains a deeper understanding and empathy for them and the war’s devastation.