Heaven’s Gate is famous for being a flop. When it premiered in 1980, it opened with universal pans from critics, poor box office receipts and a bloated running time. It almost bankrupted United Artists. The only thing that saved the famous production company was being sold to MGM. But in recent years, Heaven’s Gate has had something of a comeback. Documentaries have come out saying that the film was actually good, critics have written long essays proclaiming its valid entry into the western genre, and Criterion has even allowed it a place in its collection. I decided yesterday that I was up for a challenge, so I sat down and watched this three and a half hour epic just to see what all the hoopla is all about.
Michael Cimino is a selfish man. That is the only thing I can think of for the reason why this film is so incredibly bad. Cimino was so in love with his script, his ideas, and his images that he did not want to cut anything even though objectively most of the scenes he included were worthless. The story is supposed to be about a man who fights for a town that is about to get “raped” by the cattle industry around the turn of the last century. Instead it is a college of images that seem only related because it has our protagonist in them but lends nothing to the plot. How do long scenes of dancing, of Isabelle Huppert naked and a love triangle contribute to the main plot. The idea behind this kind of plot is to pit the good guy against the bad guy and build the tension between them. By the time I got half way through the film, I completely forgot what the main plot was. I was only reminded by it when someone in the frame said something about a death list. Instead Cimino tries to get us wrapped up in this love triangle thing that is very poorly done. Cimino’s strength is not in love triangles. He couldn’t do it in Deer Hunter and he couldn’t do it here either. Christopher Walken’s character was never a threat to our protagonist for the affections of Isabelle Huppert. From the moment he proposed to her (which she brings up about half a dozen times in the film as a way to get the protagonist to propose to her too), I knew that he was finished.
I think what the main problem of Michael Cimino is his inability to insert plot into a meticulously created atmosphere. His images were breathtaking, his attention to detail grand, and his ability create an epic scale was on par with Lean. All of these things are empty without a sense of affection for the characters or the plot. He kept the characters at a distance, never really getting us to believe or pull for one character over another. For instance at the beginning of the film, you think the tension is going to be between this grand orator and this young man, but the orator is barely in the story at all. So why did Cimino set him up as being an integral part of the film? Why did the young woman in the prologue only play a part in a photograph in the main film? What happened to her? Why was she brought up in the prologue if she had nothing to do with the main story? (She does eventually come back, but by this point I had given up trying to reason why Cimino does anything) Cimino just lets loose ends dangle until you forget them and then he ties them up in an unreasonable way. This is because instead of giving us dialogue or escalating the plot in any way, we see an extended sequence of the townspeople roller skating and a man playing a violin. While this may help to establish the comradery of the town, does it really have to be a ten minute scene?
It is probably plain to you right now that I hated this film. If you decide to solider on and watch the film, I hope that I brought up some points that you will at least think about while you make your way through this three and a half hour snorefest. I might be wrong about this film… but I am probably not.