Heaven’s Gate (1980), or Money, Money, Money…

6 10 2009

Nobody ever really talks about Heaven’s Gate. They talk about how much it cost, how much it made, or, ultimately, how much it lost. It was a financial bomb that had considerable negative hype swirling around it from before day one. People pointed to this film as the prime example of Hollywood excess, of directors being given too much control. It really comes down to who you believe should have the most say on a movie set, the director or the studio, but what I never understood was how everybody “knew” it was bad even though nobody had watched it. If you saw the ticket receipts, and everybody did, you’ll know that this movie did BAD, so bad that the studio responsible had to close its doors. And, admittedly, that’s pretty awful, but that really doesn’t have anything to say about the movie. That’s purely the backlash of a vengeful American public, quick to slap down anybody who they feel is flaunting their enormous wealth in their faces, instead of laughing quietly like most wealthy people. What does Heaven’s Gate mean besides the dollar signs that trail behind it like a struggling, hemorrhaging calf? Well, I found it to be a lot more than what they told me it might be. In fact, I think this might be one of the biggest surprises I’ve had all year. Michael Cimino directed a superb film with an odd plot and a slightly bloated budget, but I think the world has thrown the baby out with the bathwater on this one, and I’m gonna go grab that baby before it goes down the drain!!!

Heaven’s Gate is about 228 minutes. It’s incredibly long, and it has a lot of story to tell. The most bare-bones description that I could give is that it takes place around the turn of the century and focuses on a hoity-toity Harvard graduate named Averill who ends up being a sheriff in Wyoming. Somehow. His jurisdiction is Johnson County, and he is currently embroiled in a bitter battle between wealthy land owners and poor European immigrants. The immigrants are destitute, and have taken to cattle rustling, which is righteously pissing off the land owners, who are considering a violent force-out of the immigrants. Averill sides with the townsfolk, who are merely good people driven to extremes by hunger and poverty, but the land owners have their own enforcer named Champion to enforce THEIR law, and they don’t take kindly to learned Harvard interlopers. This standoff intensifies when it is revealed that the land owners have hired a gang from Texas to come out and drive the townsfolk out of Johnson County, dead or alive (which I’m pretty sure is a more expensive endeavor than letting the immigrants take a cow or two).

Meanwhile, a love triangle blooms between Ella Watson, madam of the local brothel, Averill, and, of course, Champion. She’s a fiercely independent woman, but she’s stuck between two completely different men, and it’s tearing her apart. She can see the good in Champion, and even teaches the big lug his letters, and Averill is just an all-around good fella who has a beard to die for. I can see why this is roughing her up so bad inside. But what about the land owners!?! With the angry Texans coming for poor little Johnson County, what will happen to the men and women who have made their lives there? Will they stand up and fight? Or will get crushed into rust-colored Wyoning dust under the boots of the evil cattle barons? Can Averill save the day, with his stunning moral compass, or will he be bested by cattle-baron lapdog Champion? Or will their feelings for Ella inspire a truce? Find out next time on: Heaven’s Gate!!!

Wow. My hands ache from all that exposition. And I’m not even close to touching the whole movie. You have so many people and stories here that it could’ve been cut into an original movie and its sequel. Heaven’s Gate suffers from Gone With the Wind Syndrome (GWtWS); its hopelessly in love with its own time period. It goes to great, outrageous lengths to recreate the feel of an authentic Wyoming cattle community, from the dress to the music to the speech styles. And there’s something fascinating about a movie being in love itself, I must admit; it’s contagious, and you can easily catch the romance that oozes from every pore of a movie like this. But America certainly kept its immunity up, as we can see from the zero-and-a-half people who have seen Heaven’s Gate.

But it’s really not so bad. Perhaps I have the patience of a saint, but I found a lot of things to enjoy about this period epic. First and foremost, the score must be congratulated. Composer David Mansfield creates an uplifting, nostalgic American sound that pleases me to no end. His inventiveness with different instruments is noteworthy, and I have to give him a big thumbs-up for making me feel a score in my soul for the first time in a while. And keep an eye out for the man himself on roller skates playing a fiddle in the clip above!

Director Michael Cimino has always been somewhat controversial, but it all has to be taken in context. Cimino took advantage of what seemed to be a time in American cinema where the directors had more say, when they could somewhat dictate the size and scope of the movies they made. He wanted large, extravagant films that were almost unrealistically epic in their vision, and he wanted the studio to take the fall if the movie tanked. This is a flawed philosophy, obviously, but what about the end product of this? Heaven’s Gate looks amazing. It’s ahead of its time as far as technical prowess goes, and Cimino undeniably captures something in the lens that I, at least, responded to. Some scenes, like the Harvard graduation scene, the scene with Champion shooting the cattle rustler, and the climactic Johnson County shootout, dip their toe in timelessness and immortality. There’s something so weeping about it that captures my imagination. Although I’ll be the first to admit that some of these scenes were unnecessary (why did we need to see the Harvard graduation in its entirety? Wouldn’t a flashback have sufficed?) and the film feels bloated to the point where I would shave about 10 minutes off it, I like the cut of Heaven’s Gate‘s jib.

All right, time for actor round-up! We got a lot of people to cover this time!

Firstly, Kris Kristofferson as Averill, good. I had no complaints with him; I actually found his character to be a little refreshing compared to your normal suave lead. He’s gruff, he’s rough, but he seems to have a bit of a secret intellectual side (Averill DID graduate from Harvard, you know). All around, pretty good.

Christopher Walken IS Nathan Champion, the cattle barons’ hired gun, and he is great. Long before he was extremely weird, 1980 saw him as only a mere eccentric whose quirks added to the reality (or surreality) of his roles. Champion is a gentleman with a loaded weapon, and he has his moments of ruthlessness, but Walken adds enough flourishes to actually get you to like the guy, despite his ties to evil-ness. My favorite scene with Walken: when Champion gives Ella her birthday present, and whispers strangely that his house finally has wallpaper (???). Classic!

Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson, very good. A weird entry in Huppert’s already exotic oeuvre of acting choices, the role of Ella Watson was something good for her. She has this devil-may-care attitude that excited me greatly, and also works well for a madam. What interests me most about her character is her heart; Ella is heart-breakingly sweet once you understand her, and scenes like the birthday really accentuate her precious vulnerabilities, which must be taxing as an actor. Still, she’s dragged through the mud quite a few times for this role, and I commend her for her hard work as a character that doesn’t live on the corner of Easy and Convenient.

John Hurt as Billy Irvine, good. Averill’s old Harvard buddy who is also in Wyoming being a cattle baron. Oh no! Hurt uses his dry, dignified airs to add a layer of smarm to Heaven’s Gate that I didn’t know it needed but was fine with it once it had it. Irvine is a consummate drinker, and Hurt plays a GREAT drunk. Although I don’t agree with his ideology, I could watch Irvine be drunk all day.

Sam Waterston as Frank Canton, so-so. The leader of the evil land owners, Waterston I felt had a lot more growing to do as an actor by 1980. He just didn’t feel right for the part. I still feel like he’s Nick from The Great Gatsby; I don’t buy him as villain numero uno. In five years, I could see that out of him, but as Canton I just feel like he could’ve done a little better.

So many other people populate this movie, like a young Mickey Rourke, a young Jeff Bridges, a young-ish Terry O’Quinn, an old-looking-but-young Brad Dourif, and a very young Willem Dafoe in his first movie! What a way to start out! I would go through them all, but we’d be here all night, and I’m sure you’d rather just search through my hundreds of other reviews instead, right? Right?!

In the end, it’s all about personal taste. I don’t think this is a movie you can condemn as being bad across the board like Gigli and Cutthroat Island; it had a definite reason for existing and a definite artistic purpose. Heaven’s Gate was made by a serious director with a serious intention, and even though he failed and financially wrecked a company, that intention at least came through. There are a lot of quality scenes, the score is excellent, the cast is decent and features a lot of young stars, and the movie is just excellently shot for its time. But I recommend you at least watch and decide for yourselves; who knows, you might just be a closet Cimino fan and never knew it! Either way, I give Heaven’s Gate 7 1/2 surprise wallpapers out of 10. Check it out!

WHEW! Okay, give me a minute to compose myself, and let me start tackling the review for The Last Detail! See you soon!