BIFF Review: Heaven’s Gate

Margaret Pomeranz made me wait to see Heaven’s Gate, and I’m glad she did.

Before I saw her review of the film’s last re-release in 2004, all I knew of Heaven’s Gate was its ghastly reputation. Considered one of the biggest critical and commercial flops of all time, the neo-western derailed director Michael Cimino’s career after the Oscar-winning highs of 1978’s The Deer Hunter. Going hugely over-budget during a troubled production, Heaven’s Gate finally arrived in cinemas in 1980 as damaged goods, and the reaction was toxic. Cimino was blasted for his hubris and the film contributed to the downfall of its studio, United Artists.

Debate raged about the story behind the film but scant attention was paid to its content, and what reactions there were portrayed the film as incompetent, self-indulgent hackery. With so many dire portents of a production gone wrong, it was no doubt hard to judge the film divorced from that maelstrom.

After a short run in cinemas, it was withdrawn and Cimino cut over an hour from the film for its next release, but it made little difference. Rarely has a film failed so spectacularly. Heaven’s Gate was made during Hollywood’s 1970s auteur-driven period, so wondrous things were no doubt expected from Cimino when armed with such a huge budget. Instead, the film helped bring about the end of that period and studios began taking tighter control. Just as Star Wars contributed three years earlier to the highly corporate Hollywood of today, so did Heaven’s Gate.

So what’s it about? It dramatises the Johnson County War of 1890, when the wealthy Wyoming Stock Growers Association murdered and eventually launched an all-out, presidentially-sanctioned assault on European settlers in Wyoming, whom they accused of cattle rustling. Kris Kristofferson plays Jim Averill, a local marshall who comes from wealth but defends the poor settlers once he learns that the cattle barons of the WSGA have drawn up a death list. Against this backdrop is a love triangle between Averill, bordello madam Ella (Isabelle Huppert), and WSGA enforcer Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). The film is peppered with more famous faces, including Jeff Bridges, Joseph Cotten, John Hurt, Mickey Rourke, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, and Terry O’Quinn.

So Heaven’s Gate‘s arrival at this year’s Brisbane Film Festival marks the latest step in the two decades of gradual reappraisal of the film. Separated from the fury surrounding its original release, it has been slowly rediscovered. That hasn’t been easy, because the film has scarcely been available. The legendary American cable channel Z Channel began the resuscitation of Heaven’s Gate in 1982 by screening Cimino’s original 219-minute cut, and this is the version that has been available on home video ever since. However, MGM’s DVD was a shoddy, bare-bones, and (in North America) non-anamorphic affair that was clearly not designed to fight for the film’s re-evaluation.

But the first major work to restore the film began around a decade ago, when MGM archivist John Kirk re-assembled the film from the original materials to generate a presentation worthy of Cimino’s grand vision. Cimino himself was not involved, but the film screened at numerous festivals in 2004 along with the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate. But a regime change at MGM torpedoed a DVD release for either film and the theatrical re-release barely manifested, so Heaven’s Gate lay dormant again.

But it did reach a few screens in Australia, and Margaret reviewed it on At the Movies. Given her critical stature, I was struck that she had never seen this infamous film. Having heard so much about it and the varying quality of its presentation over the years, she had pledged not to watch it until she could see it on the big screen in 35mm. She got her wish, and gave it 4-and-a-half stars, calling it “a flawed masterpiece”. So I realised that Heaven’s Gate was clearly a treasure to be patient about seeing. And not living near Sydney or Melbourne, I had no chance of seeing it during that run.

As the years passed, I became impatient enough to consider seeking out the existing DVD. But with glorious timing, the Criterion Collection announced in August that it would be meticulously restoring Heaven’s Gate with Cimino’s direct involvement and releasing it on DVD and Blu-ray! The restored version premiered in Venice in September with the formerly reclusive Cimino in attendance; Heaven’s Gate was finally re-emerging. So imagine my delight when the wonderful people at BIFF secured it for a Brisbane screening in its Australian premiere.

And luckily, Heaven’s Gate is pretty damn great. For the first hour (out of three-and-a-half), however, I was quite dubious. Certain sequences, such as the opening graduation sequence and several dances, go on for a long time with little reason, at least on first viewing. It also seemed deliberately alienating at points, with John Hurt’s subversive graduation speech quite hard to follow and dialogue difficult to discern during scenes in busy Casper, Wyoming. Cimino seemed to be grafting verite realism onto the David Lean-style epic, and the often inert scenes that result take time to adjust to.

But as the narrative comes to the fore, Heaven’s Gate grabs you and doesn’t let go. There is not a doubt in my mind that this film has been treated shamefully over the last two decades. No, it is not perfect. Some key aspects are underdeveloped and there are some self-indulgent moments, particularly when Cimino keeps the purpose of those lengthy sequences so close to the vest that we’re expected to trust him even as they push us away. But his ambition to tell a sweeping story that is deeply critical of American history and expansionism is laudable, and unlike what the critics thought at the time, his ambition largely succeeds once you reflect on the film.

Heaven’s Gate reveres the American landscape, giving us gorgeous shots of mountainous Wyoming. But it has little awe for American myth and culture, portraying the dominant powers as ruthlessly capitalistic and cruel. The scenes of murder and massacre in such beautiful surrounds is no accident. Cimino depicts an expansionist America that betrays the beautiful harmony of the land it conquers, where simple joys are trampled by ceaseless ambition. The lengthy, exuberant dance sequences that pepper the film are distractingly lengthy on first viewing, but when their motifs are adapted and repeated in the final battle, their purpose becomes clear.  Although Cimino isn’t necessarily venerating ‘a simpler time’, he is undoubtedly angry that simple pleasures and achievements have to be sacrificed so violently for pathological greed justified as a defence of freedom.

The power and profundity of the final battle sequence tie the disparate and varyingly successful elements of Heaven’s Gate together and give it significant power, but it doesn’t entirely make up for some weak and obfuscating characterisation. The players in the love triangle are too remote and unknowable. Perhaps Cimino was determined to resist melodrama, but his retience makes it difficult to invest in Averill, Ella, and Champion. Ella’s attraction to the maladjusted Champion is difficult to fathom, as are Champion’s malleable loyalties. Walken is particularly distant in this role, but that’s compensated for by the earthy charm of Kristofferson. Yet Averill is arguably too enigmatic as well, beyond the point of welcome ambiguity. Kristofferson’s performance isn’t cold, but it is gruffer than is perhaps warranted.

The characterisation is far from fatal though, and the central trio is buoyed by some sympathetic supporting performances. Bridges is strikingly haunted as a local entrepreneur standing up against the the cattle barons, and Hurt makes the spineless Billy an unsettlingly mournful presence. O’Quinn also impresses in a couple of short scenes, displaying the moving melancholy he would master in roles like Lost.

What counts most about Heaven’s Gate is that it lingers. I’ve thought about the film a great deal in the last few days, even though it’s arguably still too long despite this being Cimino’s definitive cut. This is a moving, tragic epic rich with period and thematic detail. That level of scope in a historical drama has been rare ever since (arguably non-existent), so watching Heaven’s Gate feels like a joyous rediscovery of a rare find that was hiding in plain sight all along.

Hopefully it will be distributed beyond the Criterion Collection, into international territories, syndication and streaming, and perhaps even more theatrical engagements, so that it can enjoy a proper reappraisal. Whether Heaven’s Gate has reached a turning point in its long, sad history is still unclear, but it will be fascinating to find out.

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