One of the most infamous legends of the film industry, the title which brought down United Artists and ruined the career of director Michael Cimino, who won an Oscar for his feature The Deer Hunter only two years earlier. With all this background, one would expect Heaven’s Gate to be a terrible film. Surprisingly, it isn’t a terrible film, but one that doesn’t have the appeal to justify its grandiose budget.
For starters, it’s a western in a period of time where the western was still gagging in its death throes. It’s also a revisionist western at that, undercutting many of the tropes of the genre and destroying the ideological core of the western. There are few shootouts, little iconic imagery and a distinct lack of adventure and thrills to be had in Cimino’s vision of the wild west.
Set in a tiny immigrant town of Wyoming, Sheriff James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) is caught in a difficult situation when a group of ranchers backed by the U.S. Government sends out a list calling for the deaths of many of the inhabitants of the town in an attempt to grab up more land. As he deals with those who would exploit these immigrants, such as Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), as well as win the heart of the girl he loves, Ella Watson (Isabella Huppert), the impending threat of death lingers upon the city and begins slowing caving the community inward.
The film contrasts the upper and lower classes, the ignorant vs. the educated as one of the core struggles of the West. Here, it is the educated that have displaced themselves so much from the world that they are able to value human life as a commodity like any other which leads to the horrific decision to call for the death of men and woman who have essentially done nothing illegal.
The educated see them as degenerate and scum, in part because it isn’t unwarranted. The men of the town gather around to gamble on cockfights and then spend their evenings visiting the ladies of the night. Here, without civilization, there’s little pretense for codes of decency and conduct. And yet even if they are somehow compromised, one can’t help but feel these townsfolk have a stronger moral code than the men from Harvard and Cambridge who want them dead.
The most readily available version of this film is the original cut which spans to around three hours and forty minutes. It’s a daunting watch and most audience members will be frustrated at what they perceive as artificial lengthening due to the fact that Cimino lingers upon almost every scene, drawing out each moment to a length that appears excessive and unnecessary. While that’s a valid reaction, many of these sequences are a feat in motion, choreography and scale, a display of technical craftsmanship which is visually alluring and awe inspiring.
Even more than that, every single shot, every last frame displays a level of detail, care and artisanship which is rarely seen in films. Frame by frame, scene by scene, the original cut of this film is molded into a series of tantalizing images. It’s a film filled with fantastic sequence after fantastic sequence, a delicate craft behind every moment.
Do those individual moments weave together into something meaningful, entertaining and engaging? The average viewer will probably find their attention span waning too fast to reach such a question. Yet for those who give it a chance and stick with it, there’s something undeniably fantastic about Heaven’s Gate. Whether or not it ends up culminating into a great film is debatable, but it’s certainly a debate worth having.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing