During the Johnson County War in 1890 Wyoming, a sheriff born into wealth does his best to protect immigrant farmers from rich cattle interests.During the Johnson County War in 1890 Wyoming, a sheriff born into wealth does his best to protect immigrant farmers from rich cattle interests.During the Johnson County War in 1890 Wyoming, a sheriff born into wealth does his best to protect immigrant farmers from rich cattle interests.
Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" is certainly not without its problems, but it's hard to believe, now that the historical context in which the film was released is long past, that it received such a rough drubbing when it came out 25 years ago. It's quite an interesting film and even a very well made one. It bears many similarities to Cimino's earlier success, "The Deer Hunter": a focus on male solidarity and conflict, man returning to a more primitive state, a narrative structure that has the protagonist moving from civilization to a barbaric world and then back to a civilization that will be changed forever by preceding events. Like "The Deer Hunter," this films deals in images more than words. Unlike "The Deer Hunter," however, and this film's biggest failing, is the lack of a cast of the same strength that graced Cimino's earlier film. "The Deer Hunter" had Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken. "Heaven's Gate" gets Christopher Walken, but in a role for which he is ill suited, and instead of De Niro and Streep we get Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert. I don't know what possessed Cimino to think Kristofferson could carry a film of this magnitude, but it's a dire miscalculation on his part. Kristofferson isn't necessarily a horrible actor, but he's certainly not strong enough to retain an audience's interest over the course of a 219 minute film. Isabelle Huppert is bland as well. The result is long scenes with little or no dialogue, in which feelings are supposedly being expressed in the faces of the actors; but since the actors aren't very strong, nothing is getting expressed. That's what makes "Heaven's Gate" much longer than it needs to be. There's really only a wisp of a story, so if we're not fully engaged in the characters, what exactly are we supposed to be engaged in? However, the weak cast and writing aside, "Heaven's Gate" is still a remarkable achievement in its own way, and a much better film than a new generation of movie lovers has been led to believe. Cimino may stumble with actors, but he's got a iron-clad grasp of visuals, and puts some stunning and memorable images on the screen. The film feels much more like a 70's film than it does an 80's film. At various times, it reminded me of "Little Big Man," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and "The Wild Bunch." If that esteemed company doesn't serve as an endorsement of this film, I don't know what does.
- May 2, 2005
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