In Michael Cimino's bleak anti-western based on events in 1890s Wyoming, Sheriff James Averill attempts to protect immigrant farmers from wealthy cattle interests, and also clashes with a hired gun, Nathan Champion, over the woman they both love. Both men find themselves questioning their roles in the furious conflict between wealthy landowners and European immigrants attempting to build new lives on the American frontier, which culminates in a brutal pitched battle. Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
Wondering why they were paying so much money to rent the land, on which they were filming, United Artists went to check the local tax records to find out who the owner was. It turned out that it was Writer and Director Michael Cimino. See more »
During the pivotal pool hall conversation, the ball positions on the table are constantly changing during different edits. See more »
Towards the end of "Heaven's Gate", it dawned upon me that Michael Ciminio has no idea what his movie is about. Is it an epic adventure, a revisionist western, a character study, a snapshot of a historical period, a love story, a dramatic expose of corruption, an artful meditation on humanity? Cimino has no idea. He tries to make "Heaven's Gate" into all of these things, more or less failing.
It's not as if he was concerned about the damage this incoherence would do to the plot, characters, pacing, etc. The bottom line is SPECTACLE. The audience is supposed to be overwhelmed; by the epic subtext, cast of thousands, artistic lighting, the sheer money apparent on the screen. But any self-respecting viewer will tell you that being overwhelmed is not the same as being entertained.
Every scene presents a bare minimum of information to tell the story: There's a guy. We saw him before, I think. Now he's on a train. Now he's talking to somebody. Now he's mad. And so on. We get the gist of what's going on, with little clue why or how. Not that we care anyway, the characters are all constructed as supporting players to spectacle.
To make matters worse, every shot, scene, sequence, and subplot is about four times too long. There is one exception: the roller skating scene, filled with such energy and cinematic prowess that it seems tacked on from another picture. That alone was worth the price of admission. Almost.
Cimino has a relatively unimaginative style of direction, which appears standard on prime time TV. Yet Ciminio constantly gets lost in "fetishes", which apparently are dust, trains and horses. Dust is everywhere. Everywhere. Indoors, outdoors, in the middle of grassy fields. Sometimes there's so much dust you can't even see what's going on. Whenever a train appears, we are treated to beautiful, laborious shots that clog up the storyline. There are apparently less people in Johnson County than horses, who repeatedly hog the foreground. Even in the battle sequences. In fact, the dramatic scene at the end of Part I consists of horses riding off a train, obscured by dust. I'm serious.
This would be a film forgotten by time if it weren't for the titanic production misadventure that bankrupted an established movie studio, bringing the New Hollywood era down with it. Of course, "JAWS" and "Star Wars" are guilty too, but only in the best possible ways.
But "Heaven's Gate" is a sheer mess. Not a disaster, or an ostracized masterpiece. An unguided, absolute, sheer mess. Like T.S. Elliot, "This is the way the world ends/not with a bang but a whimper." It would feel a lot better if the age of the auteur that included "The Graduate", "Bonnie and Clyde", "2001", "The Godfather", "Taxi Driver", and "Apocalypse Now" had ended with a spectacular bomb.
But no. "Heaven's Gate" is Hollywood's whimper.
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