Writer-director Michael Cimino’s magnum opus about greed, which has ironically become shorthand for the profligate excesses of auteur filmmaking, boasts enough commendable elements for a dozen movies. The story is a thoughtful riff on a fraught period in American history, the performances are sensitive and textured, the production values are awesome, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s images are rapturous. Had Cimino been able to wrestle this material into shape, either at the time of the film’s original release or prior to one of its many reissues, he could have made a classic Hollywood epic. Famously, however, he did not. In its most widely acclaimed version, Heaven’s Gate runs three hours and 37 minutes, which is not inherently hubristic; Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is only one minute shorter. The problem is that Heaven’s Gate features at least an hour of repetitive material that, no matter how beautifully filmed, adds nothing to the dramatic experience. Hence, now and forever, Heaven’s Gate is known as the debacle that nearly bankrupted United Artists, the disaster that ballooned from an original budget of $11 million to a final cost of $44 million, and the death knell for the freedoms that maverick directors enjoyed in the ’70s. Ouch.
The movie begins with a pointless 20-minute prologue that introduces protagonist Jim Averil (Kris Kristofferson) during his graduation from Harvard in 1870. The excess of the prologue, which features innumerable extras in elaborate costumes, is a bad omen. Once the movie cuts 20 years ahead, to 1890 Wyoming, things get moving (more or less). Averil has become a marshal tasked with overseeing a county populated by impoverished Eastern European immigrants. In the first volleys of a land war, cattlemen led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) hire gunmen to kill immigrants based on trumped-up charges. Eventually, a love triangle emerges between Averil, prostitute Ella (Isabelle Huppert), and gunman Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). Amid various subplots, the narrative builds toward a showdown between the haves and the have-nots, with our Principled Antihero caught in between.
Alas, Cimino’s writing is nowhere near as strong as his direction. When he aims for subtlety, he achieves muddiness, and when he reaches for profundity, he achieves pretentiousness. Supporting characters feel underdeveloped, relationships grind through repetitive rhythms, and everything is grossly overproduced. Some of the film’s gigantic scenes are powerful, including the final showdown, but some are laughable—notably the 10-minute roller-skating scene. Cimino’s missteps are especially disappointing because he gathered such an interesting cast and, for the most part, gave the actors viable emotions to play. Kristofferson fares the worst, since his understated screen persona exacerbates the movie’s lazy pacing, but he connects periodically. Walken fares the best, his innate eccentricity helping him forge an individualized character. Yet costars Jeff Bridges and Brad Dourif are almost completely wasted.
Even though it’s possible there’s a great movie buried inside Heaven’s Gate, it becomes more and more difficult to see potential as the minutes tick by and the problems accumulate. Nonetheless, there’s some comfort it knowing the situation could have been worse. The first version of Heaven’s Gate that Cimino showed to understandably flabbergasted United Artists executives was five hours long.
Heaven’s Gate: FUNKY