[box cover]

Heaven's Gate

MGM Home Video

Starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert,
and Christopher Walken

Written and directed by Michael Cimino

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Although few people have actually seen it, the dubious legacy of Heaven's Gate is sure to linger long in the paranoid transom of Hollywood studio chiefs.

Released in 1980, Michael Cimino's cynical western epic came nowhere near recouping its then-mammoth $44 million budget. After just three days into its release, during which the picture was emasculated by savage reviews, United Artists pulled it, chopped it down from four hours to 150 minutes, and then watched in panic as it earned only $1.5 million in box office receipts. Needless to say, this infamous failure nearly destroyed the studio, and it has since become an industry metaphor for iffy, big-budgeted vanity projects.

During the preceding decade, of course, the movie industry boomed because "crazy," ego-driven, free-spending mavericks like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas produced enduring works of trailblazing art. Even Cimino scored Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in 1978 for his moving, daring Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter. But if the unprecedented merchandizing success of Star Wars foretold the end of Hollywood's patience with erratic creative types nursing risky, grandiose visions, then Heaven's Gate sealed its dark fate. Cimino's notorious film — an obvious labor of love — is a work of incredible, carefully wrought physical beauty that is also as dumb and boring as all tarnation.

Based on a potentially interesting historical conflict between rich cattle owners and poor immigrants in 1890's Wyoming, Heaven's Gate is so aimless, ill-conceived, and indulgent that it's possible to spend the movie's four-hour duration marveling that it ever got green-lighted. Kris Kristofferson stars as Jim Averill, a privileged Harvard-grad stooping to enforce law in lawless Jackson County, Wyoming, where an association of wealthy Stock Growers has hired 50 mercenaries to kill 125 immigrants accused of thieving cattle. Cimino spends nearly an hour on negligible back-story and inert atmosphere before he bothers with this first-act plot hook, and once he broaches it, he's quickly off to spend another hour on pastoral montage and static subplots before returning to the narrative. These rhapsodic interludes do nothing to propel the story or develop character — they are simply an excuse for Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to paint another gorgeous landscape.

Averill is not only hopelessly static for the focal point of a long story, but Kristofferson is so reserved and quiet in the role that he's practically non-existent. There are several fine actors scattered amongst the supporting roles, including Isabelle Huppert as Jim's fickle whore/lover, Christopher Walken as the eye-shadowed mercenary vying for her affection, Jeff Bridges as a drunk with a thick beard, John Hurt as a drunk without a beard, and Sam Waterston as the beady-eyed villain. None of these characters are fleshed out, and few of them have a serious stake in the matter at hand. The hunted immigrants are reduced to a crowd of shouting, bearded people in hats (and what are they shouting about all that time?), and the villains are a bunch of quiet, chubby guys in dusters.

The film's post-Western milieu feels painstakingly researched, but in this case the quantity of local color simply overpowers the people. Not helping matters, Cimino has filled the soundtrack with such heavy atmospheric noise that half of the sparse dialogue is incomprehensible, making even less sense of the already muddled plot. Some scenes that should have been heart-rending — like when Jim reads off the names on the Death List at a town meeting, and the climactic battle — devolve too quickly into absurd chaos, feigning at emotion but only delivering noise, and never once suggesting historical reality.

There is so much wrong with every scene of Heaven's Gate that it would take Cimino-size stamina to sort it all out. To add insult to boring injury, this four-hour saga fizzles out into one of the most listless, downbeat, futile endings known to man. It's like a long joke with a no punchline that causes one to question, "I sat through that for this?"

This uncut, original version looks stunning in 2.35:1 widescreen, but looks aren't everything. In 2.0 Dolby Surround. Trailer, keep case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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