In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1978 winner The Deer Hunter. Is it better than Crash?
The most common element in a Best Picture winner is either Dustin Hoffman or war. This one’s a war movie, but it’s so much more than that.
We are fascinated with war because it’s the biggest, craziest thing we can think of. One whole loosely defined group goes up against another loosely defined group and they duke it out over something. In The Deer Hunter, a group of Pennsylvania steelworkers has a lavish wedding party before serving in the Vietnam War. They drink and dance and then go off to war. It feels inevitable.
The Vietnam War is the one we don’t really know how to talk about the most, perhaps, and it certainly was in 1978. Every single element of The Deer Hunter is designed to feel like a march towards something terrible. The men go through a wedding but are gripped by the thrill/fear of going to war. They go hunting but are more consumed by their thoughts than by the hunt. They go to war and are made to not just shoot at other people, but to turn the guns on themselves. Through iconic Russian roulette games, Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are as chilling as anything in any other movie on this list. The Deer Hunter will break you down into your smallest pieces.
The Hurt Locker, Platoon, and The Best Years of Our Lives are all “war” movies that are about the external struggle as well as the internal struggle, but the “war” itself in The Deer Hunter almost doesn’t matter. The guys have to go to war to have their psyches opened, but they were always, partially, these people. It’s traditional in that it has the whole “your own worst enemy” thing going on where the internal struggle plays a larger role than the literal war, but it’s almost surprising how little Vietnam there seems to be in this Vietnam War movie.
It’s depressing, intense, and dramatic. It’s probably too much of all three of those things, though that will depend on what you want out of The Deer Hunter. Even if you think the whole thing is too much — and some of the symbolism can’t be said to be anything but “too much” — you will get something out of it. It will make you feel something for this unfortunate group of men. It’ll definitely do that.
The Best Part: The performances here are all spot-on: peak Robert De Niro, 30-year-old Meryl Streep, stone-serious and terrifying Christopher Walken, and the final film role of John Cazale. Everyone’s perfect here, which is good, because they have to pull off some insane stuff. I found it tense in a great way, but it’s definitely possible that the entire thing will feel too ridiculous to you. That seems to be the primary rethinking of The Deer Hunter, though I think it goes right to edge of madness without tipping over.
The Worst Part: The film works in thirds: America, trip to Vietnam, back to America. That first third is supposed to set up the characters, but they don’t really matter until they are changed. People always come at Tarantino for not editing, but this has to be the most unnecessary act in film history. It’s nearly an hour long and does about five minutes of work. There’s something to be said for establishing a tone, but “happy at a wedding before the war” does not need to be as long as the war itself.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The Deer Hunter has been rethought a lot since it came out and shocked everyone, and I think that’s probably the only thing that could have happened. Most of what makes it so great is the shock. The Russian roulette scenes are all terrifying, the brutality of the war scenes are terrifying, the trip home is terrifying. Everything truly excellent in The Deer Hunter is excellent because you can’t believe what you’re seeing. I’ve mostly skirted the specifics here to try to keep this what it needs to be: something that you don’t see coming. Even if you have a vague awareness of The Deer Hunter, it’s much like needing to see Rain Man. Just knowing what it is isn’t enough, you have to witness it. You don’t need to see Crash, you can just take my word on that one.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.