Sunday, August 26, 2012

Heaven's Gate. A-

Heaven's Gate is a notorious box office and critical failure, the indulgent 1980 3-plus hour epic that all but destroyed the career of Michael Cimino. Cimino of course had directed The Deer Hunter, the ambitious Oscar winner that really gave him the freedom to make Heaven's Gate. Much of the backlash surrounding the film upon its release was over the shooting of the movie itself, during which Cimino brought the budget far over its limit and directed in a method that at the time was like that of a madman, yet today is the mark of an auteur. Arguably he opened the door to a more liberal approach to making movies, wherein a director doesn't so much have an agenda as he does a vision. So Heaven's Gate isn't nearly as bad as everyone said it was back in 1980, and with the exception of a few problems, it's largely great. And even with its imperfections, this a damn entertaining film, the 216 minute running time going by not just quickly, but smoothly. This is a really nicely put together movie, without any major tonal shifts or random plot threads that one might expect in picture as lengthy and derided as this one. It's also got great cinematography, with one gorgeous, clear image of the West after another, making Roger Ebert's complaint that the film is "so smokey, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused' pretty inexplicable. The story itself nicely combines the real-life Johnson County War in Wyoming with a big time, old school love triangle involving Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, and Christopher Walken (great early performance, along with The Deer Hunter). While Cimino's storytelling may be predictable, he's got a good sense of classical narrative form, confronting romantic idealism with with the tragedy that lies in its wake. Heaven's Gate a very good film that was victimized by high expectations, bad rumors, and the drive of a filmmaker was too much too early. But it's slowly but surely begun to gain the respect it deserves, and it wouldn't surprise me that when the film turns, say, fifty, it's considered an American classic. 

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