Heaven's Gate (1980)

Genres - Western  |   Sub-Genres - Epic Western, Revisionist Western  |   Release Date - Nov 19, 1980 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 217 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Keith Phipps

The dire financial and professional consequences Heaven's Gate visited upon its director and studio can't be disputed, but the virtues of the film itself remain more open to debate. Though unwieldy, unsatisfying, and self-indulgent to a fault -- Michael Cimino appears uncomfortable shooting a scene with fewer than fifty extras -- its excesses also bring quite a bit to admire. But first the flaws: Heaven's Gate plays like an ultra-ambitious first novel in desperate need of an editor. Though it prominently features a love triangle between Kris Kristoferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Huppert, for instance, it not only takes over 90 minutes to establish this relationship, it takes that long to establish that all three characters know each other. By that point, Cimino has already made clear that muscular storytelling will not be a priority, and while that approach suited Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter just fine, it fails him here. What's more, for a film about the struggle of the common man against a system of capitalist oppression, it rather hypocritically reduces its poor immigrant farmers into an undifferentiated mass. But for those willing to stick with the 219 minute film (the version to which this review refers and the one most widely available on video and at revival screenings) through those flaws, Heaven's Gate offers considerable rewards. If nothing else, it's a masterful work of cinematography from first shot to last, thanks to the work of Vilmos Zsigmond. More directly to Cimino's credit as a director, he uses Zsigmond's imagery to convey his grandiose themes about the West and America in a way his screenplay only suggests. Where Heaven's Gate fails as a film, it sometimes works as a symbolic pageant, and while that may not be enough to redeem it entirely, it certainly rescues it from charges of artistic disaster.