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Heaven's Gate Movie Review

cimino film john association

1980 – Michael Cimino –

The film that helped sink United Artists and one of the most infamous financial fiascos in movie history, Heaven's Gate explores the American Dream in a manner similar to Cimino's lauded The Deer Hunter and raises the interesting question: Is it as bad as the critics say? Made for some $40 million, the film was originally budgeted for $11 million. Cimino started slowly, falling five days behind schedule during the first six days of shooting. From there, things went downhill. Cimino eventually assembled 220 hours of footage. As co-star John Hurt aptly describes the movie, “Michael Cimino made this gigantic film without an emotional or intellectual center. He gave himself a brilliant narrative on a plate and then stubbornly refused to serve it.”

It begins at a Harvard commencement in 1870 with a class of idealists who graduate and move into the real world to make their marks. Two of them, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), go west. Both are wealthy by 1890, and they wind up on opposite sides of a hideous undertaking by the cattlemen's association.

Led by Sam Waterson's Frank Canton, the association aims to murder 125 immigrant citizens they consider anarchists, murderers, and thieves. Mostly, the ranchers hate these new citizens for stealing their cattle. Times are hard and the hungry immigrants take branded, free-range cattle to butcher and eat. Averill, the local lawman, opposes this violence toward the immigrants and sets out to stop it, but association employee Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) begins a campaign of violence, killing off the “citizens,” as the immigrants are called. However, one man cannot kill them fast enough for Canton and the rest of the association, so they recruit a private army and offer them each $5 a day plus expenses and the bonus of $50 for every citizen shot or hanged.

One of the more interesting subplots concerns the local madam, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), and her ongoing love affair with the competing Averill and Champion. Of course, since Ella's name is one of those on the death list, this love plot deeply intertwines with the larger revenge story and ends tragically for all three. Saloon keeper John Bridges (Jeff Bridges) rallies the citizens, and they arm themselves and meet the association's army in the climactic battle of epic proportions. In it, Irvine, a tragic/comic character (who must also be the designated drunk, as he seemingly spends the entire movie in a stupor) is mercifully killed. Being heavily anesthetized by drink, he never feels a thing.

In spite of its poisonous reputation, Heaven's Gate is not entirely without merit and can often maintain interest. However, what ultimately undercuts the film is its lack of proportion. For example, Cimino endlessly replays one of David Mansfield's country waltzes past the point of effectiveness, and scenes of meaningful dialogue give way to meaningless moments of inactivity backed by more music. Such an uncertain, plodding development eventually weakens the few sequences with good dialogue. Cimino's unhurried pace bores the viewer, and the overlapping dialogue, often in different languages, confuses the soundtrack rather than adds an authentic touch (as seems to have been intended).

The dingy look of the film works against it as well. The film was critically panned (many writers agreeing with Roger Ebert, who called Heaven's Gate "one of the ugliest films I have ever seen”). Ebert commented aptly that his response owes not to the film's content but rather to its texture. Framed by camera ace Vilmos Zsigmond, many scenes are shot in brownish tints and soft focus, and it is often difficult to tell what you are seeing. Dirt seemingly circulates in nearly every scene. By the end, the audience is ready for a break and a shower.

Cast: Kris Kristofferson (James Averill), Christopher Walken (Nathan D. Champion), John Hurt (Billy Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr. Eggleston), Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson), Joseph Cotten (Reverend Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John H. Bridges), Ronnie Hawkins (Wolcott), Paul Koslo (Mayor), Geoffrey Lewis (Trapper), Richard Masur (Cully), Mickey Rourke (Nick Ray) Screenwriter: Michael Cimino Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond Composer: David Mansfield Producer: Joann Carelli for United Artists MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 220 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1981: Nominations: Art Direction/Set Direction Budget: $26M or $44M (depending on the source) Box Office: $1.5M.

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