HEAVEN’S GATE (Michael Cimino, 1980)
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When I was a kid in school, one of the first movies I ever reviewed was Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s brazenly overbudget famous Hollywood disaster. Incensed that professional film critics were obsessed with the meta surrounding the making of the epic Western instead of simply taking it for what it was, I was determined to treat it like any other movie, forgetting about all the behind-the-scenes gossip and tales of financial gluttony. And what I found back then was that it was a noble failure, a bold exercise in genre that had its share of strong moments but ultimately fell apart, leaving me dissatisfied and disappointed but glad I had seen it; I did not want my three-plus hours back. In fact, I probably would have checked out the rumored five-hour version if it had been shown, hoping it would fill in the many gaps that plagued the official theatrical release. More than thirty years later, Cimino’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning sophomore effort, The Deer Hunter, has returned in a 216-minute digital restoration supervised by Cimino, playing March 22-28 at Film Forum, and it does indeed shed new light on the unfairly ridiculed work, which is still, after all this time, a noble failure. Inspired by the 1882 Johnson County War in Wyoming, the film stars Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averill, a Harvard-educated lawman hired by a group of immigrants, called “citizens,” whose livelihood — and lives — are being threatened by a wealthy cattlemen’s association run by the elitist Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). The association has come up with a kill list of 125 citizens, offering fifty dollars for each murder, a plan that has been authorized all the way up to the president of the United States. Leading the way for the cattlemen is hired killer Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who has a particularly fierce aversion to the foreign-speaking immigrants. With a major battle on the horizon, Averill and Champion also fight for the love of the same woman, the luminous Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a successful madam who soon finds herself in the middle of the controversy.
Heaven’s Gate is beautifully photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, the first half bathed in sepia tones, with many shots evoking Impressionist painting. The narrative, which begins in Harvard in 1870 before jumping to 1890 Wyoming, moves far too slowly, with underdeveloped relationships and characters that don’t pay off in the long run, especially John Hurt as Billy Irvine, who wanders around lost throughout the film. Using a gentle rendition of Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” as a musical motif, Cimino creates repetitive scenes that start too early and go on too long, choosing style over substance, resulting in too much atmosphere and not enough motivation. The all-star cast also includes Joseph Cotten, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, Richard Masur, Eastwood regular Geoffrey Lewis, Terry O’Quinn, Tom Noonan, and Mickey Rourke, but most of them are wasted in minor roles that are never fully developed. Whereas the film began by calling to mind such works as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it devolves into Sam Peckinpah-lite as rape and violence take center stage, along with silly plot twists and clichéd dialogue, much of which is hard to make out. However, all of that does not add up to one of the worst movies ever made, despite its inclusion on many such lists. It even feels oddly relevant today, as America continues to debate immigration laws. But in the end it’s just a film that tried too hard, focusing on the wrong things. Back in 1980, I wanted to see the supposed five-hour version; now I think I’d prefer to see a two-hour Heaven’s Gate that would just get to the point.