Then Playing: Heaven’s Gate


I usually reserve the longer reviews for films still playing in theaters, but sometimes a title I’ve caught up on later merits a few extra words.

Like a sizable portion of the U.S. electorate, I’ve been anxiously seeking out distractions for, oh, say, the past week or so. My natural instinct is to seek solace in the movie house, in all its many iterations. As a general rule, the more time kept away from ruminating on the political toxins burdening the atmosphere, the better. So when the opportunity arose to sit before the three hour and thirty-nine minute cut of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, it struck me as a blessing.

The film looms large in cinematic history, and it was likely I’d never be more motivated to buckle in for the entirety of it. While I know plenty about the infamous feature, I came to realize that the details I carried were largely about its troubled production, brutalizing initial reception, and — in some quarters — generous reassessment. Beyond the period setting, I had only the vaguest notion of its plot and its thematic points. Thus I discovered that Heaven’s Gate is, at its core, about the wealthiest citizens in the nation preserving their power by callously manipulating the most susceptible members of society, largely by demonizing immigrants, distracting the classes with fewer dollars from taking democratic command of their collective destiny by pitting them against each other. It turns out the film wasn’t a helpful distraction after all.

Taking place in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Heaven’s Gate is largely set in rural Wyoming. It’s there that Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) operates as the sole law enforcement officer in Johnson County. In part because his own privileged lineage gives him insight on the workings of those who plot to keep their personal funds from being redistributed, Jim learns of a scheme to set hired killers loose against the immigrants that make up a good chunk of the population of the dusty lands he calls home. Even equipped with this knowledge, Jim learns there’s only so much he do to protect the people who have been added to the so-called “kill list.”

Cimino based him screenplay on the real events that were known as the Johnson County War. Where Oliver Stone might have steered such a film toward bloody outrage and John Sayles would have surely opted for a tone of a wryly disappointed schoolmaster, Cimino wants nothing less than the Great America Novel pressed onto celluloid instead of paper. The film is serious-minded and fully dedicated to its own agonizing sprawl. There is a moody love triangle involving Jim, bordello madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), and a hired gun named Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). There are enormous battle sequences and grand set pieces that may as well close with a flashing chryon requesting applause.

I completely understand why a subsection of cineastes have started arguing that Heaven’s Gate in a misunderstood masterpiece, presumably clearing their throats and straightening their ties before launching into impassioned oratory. It practically quivers with import. All by its lonesome, the dreamily gorgeous cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond is a persuasive argument for proclaiming greatness. Combine that with the nearly irresistible inclination to interpret any movie inflicted with studio tampering — dismayed by the vicious early reaction, United Artists pulled it from theaters so Cimino could trim over an hour from it ahead of a wider release — as the work of a great artist tragically unrecognized, and Heaven’s Gate is practically engineered for sympathetic rescue.

Opinions can reasonably vary, but Heaven’s Gate is not some unassailable, neglected gem. The film probably didn’t deserve Vincent Canby’s famed condemnation of it as “an unmitigated disaster,” but David Denby strikes me as spot on in assessing Cimino as “vain, foolish, and wasteful beyond belief.” For a film that spends so much unhurried time with a relatively modest cast of central characters, it exhibits an almost alarming lack of interest in developing them.  They are nothing more than Cimino’s game pieces, positioned to move through one elegant, controlled tableau after another. This is precisely what stultifying indulgence looks like.

The rising echo in the soul of the film drowns out even Cimino’s most noble intentions. He has a strong argument to make about the heartless ingredients baked right into capitalism, a system that compels the rich to champion “the idea that poor people have nothing to say in the affairs of this country.” The film is so defined by its overreach that nearly every political point Cimino raises is more reflective of his own blind ambition than the nation Cimino means to chide. For some, the film represents the inevitable wreckage of the unchecked auteurism of nineteen-seventies U.S. cinema, which produced works of genius before tornadoing into troublesome self-destruction. “The film that caused the crisis could have been Sorcerer or Apocalypse Now or 1941 or even Reds,” Peter Biskind wrote in his seminal Easy Riders Raging Bulls. “So far as the ambition and budget were concerned, Cimino didn’t do anything Friedkin, Coppola, Spielberg, and Beatty hadn’t done.”

The scope of Cimino’s hubris may have been in line with that of his peers, but Heaven’s Gate really does stand apart, carrying the sickly aura that suggests directorial ambition has finally crossed into a radioactive zone from which there is no return. Boldness has turned foolhardy, and the unsinkable vessel is taking on water. That facet, too, called to mind the current affairs I longed to escape.

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