No scene is an island.
Every single thing that happens in a film – the dialogue, the action, the character interactions – needs to progress the story. Otherwise, it’s superfluous, pointless, and a waste of valuable screentime. Scenes are meant to stand on their own, yes, but in a certain order and connected in one way or another to all other scenes. This is how you get truly great scenes, those moments that are both the perfect culmination of everything building up to them and the perfect instigator for everything that will happen after them. Think of the “floating bag” scene in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, or Roy Batty’s monologue in the rain at the end of Blade Runner – those scenes are uniquely memorable, but neither of them is wholly individual, they rely on context for their resonance. They are great, in essence, because they solve something, either something tangible dealing with plot, something emotional dealing with character, or in the best cases, both.
One of those best cases occurs in the middle of Michael Cimino’s multi-Oscar-winning film The Deer Hunter. I think you know what scene I’m talking about because it’s one of cinema’s most visceral gut-punches: the scene in which the characters played by Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken are forced by their Vietnamese captors to play Russian Roulette against one another. Besides being incredibly tense, heartbreakingly emotional, and powerfully performed, this scene is also considered the most important, narratively speaking, of the entire film because of the way it is built on all we have seen and the way it will ripple through all we’re yet to see.
In the latest essay from Jack’s Movie Reviews, The Deer Hunter’s Russian Roulette scene is examined in detail for the purpose of exploring both the techniques Cimino used to film its pulse-pounding dynamic, and the ramifications it has on the rest of the film.