Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Heaven's Gate" is Still Pretty Bad

There are flops and there are legendary flops, and Michael Cimino's 1980 western epic "Heaven's Gate" is one of the most infamous of all time. It not only lost so much money that it destroyed United Artists, but it's commonly pointed to as one of the films responsible for ending the New Hollywood film era that saw the control of American films shift away from directors to studios and corporate interests. Critically, it was reviled upon initial release, but its image had been rehabilitated significantly in recent years. A 219 minute "restored cut" was made available by the Criterion Collection in 2012 under the director's supervision, adding over a full hour of footage. This is the version that I saw, having had no experience with the original theatrical cut. So is "Heaven's Gate" a misunderstood masterpiece finally getting its due? No, not really.

Loosely based on a real range war that happened in the 1890s, "Heaven's Gate" follows a marshal named Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) who becomes caught up in the conflict between an Association of rich cattle barons, lead by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), and the growing number of poor immigrant settlers who are more recently arrived. Averill is friends with Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who has been hired by the Association to hunt down and kill suspected cattle rustlers, a pretext to drive away the settlers. The two men become involved in a love triangle with a local madam, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), known to be friendly to the immigrants, and who becomes target of the Association. The "Heaven's Gate" of the title refers to a roller rink the immigrants use as a meeting place, and where Averill and Ella fall in love.

I give Michael Cimino full points for ambition. "Heaven's Gate" is certainly an epic in every sense of the word, full of beautifully composed, large scale action sequences, huge crowd scenes, and a faithful recreation of the period environs. It's unflinching in its violence, includes some perfectly appropriate sexual content, presents social commentary that still resonates, and has a refreshingly mature take on romance. There are singular moments in the film that are truly arresting, and well worthy of praise. The cast is stacked with strong talents, and I had a great time picking out familiar faces in early roles. Christopher Walken comes off the best as one of the three leads, a hired gun with a sentimental heart. I also like Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a little ridiculous in construction, but she doesn't let that stop her for a moment.

Sadly, the movie is a dreadful bore. Characters show up and are given nothing to do. Important relationships are established quickly and left underdeveloped. The director seems to have something against basic exposition, preferring to spend long stretches of the film acquainting us with beautiful landscapes and incidental moments in his painstakingly recreated Wyoming frontier. I had to look up who some of the characters were, like the roller rink owner played by Jeff Bridges, who wander in and out of the narrative at random. This is not necessarily a bad approach in the right hands, but Cimino too frequently leaves his audience adrift, saddled with repetitive sequences, a plethora of confusing minor characters, and a narrative that fails to maintain any momentum for far too long.

The movie improves as it goes on, and the bodies start piling up, but it's an awful slog to get to the parts that feel like a proper movie instead of an indulgent tonal exercise. Kris Kristofferson's Averill is a major problem, a nonentity who spends a lot of time onscreen without making much of an impression, who I found impossible to connect with emotionally or psychologically on any level - and the whole point of the movie is his spiritual journey. Kristofferson's career would never be the same after "Heaven's Gate," which I find a little unfair. It wasn't so much his performance, but the total lack of a character that did Averill in. By the time the film's coda rolled around, it felt like I'd missed a huge chunk of the story, despite having watched it all unfold for over three hours of screen time.

"Heaven's Gate" doesn't strike me as a legendary disaster, but it is a film best suited for very niche tastes that had no business being made at a Hollywood studio for the exorbitant funds that it cost. There are some wonderful images and strong performances in it, but they're not enough to offset the lack of focus and lack of discipline. I think this was a major missed opportunity for something better, and the best thing I can say about it is that it remains a fascinating, flawed curiosity that once had the potential to be a great work of art.

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