Michael Cimino must be the most self-absorbed director of all time. I mean here’s the guy who ruined the first half of the otherwise perfect The Deer Hunter by showing us a wedding in real time. Heaven’s Gate opens up with a similar scene involving another one of life’s great passages: Graduation. Seriously, Cimino is the only dude I know of that would open a three and three quarter hour long movie with a twenty minute college graduation scene.
You see, this is a classic case of a director winning an Oscar and then going out and making the stupidest picture possible. Like the Coen Brothers when they made the awful Burn After Reading, no one gave Cimino any constructive criticisms or studio notes. They just thought, “Oh he won the Best Director Oscar, he knows what he’s doing.” It’s that kind of thinking that causes a studio to lose $40 million and go bankrupt PDQ.
This has to be the ugliest looking movie ever made too. It’s all dusty and grimy and dirty. Whole scenes are covered in smoke, obscuring most of the screen. This is especially evident during the action sequences. In addition to all the smoke and dust, the framing is so off that it’s hard to tell who’s shooting at who. And when someone does get killed, half the time you can’t even figure out who it is. Why is this? Cuz no one told Cimino, “Hey Mike, maybe the audience would like to SEE what’s going on in their movie?”
I swear, Dust, Smoke, and Grime should’ve gotten top billing over the cast.
The plot? Well, it’s in there somewhere if you squint hard enough. The people of
Heaven’s Gate is long as fuck and is too dusty to see most of the time but it’s not all bad though. In fact some passages of the film are quite moving, well acted, and entertaining. However, there are other scenes that could’ve been edited out completely and no one would’ve noticed. Like the five minute long roller skating sequence. I know Mike spent a lot of money dressing hundreds of extras in period clothing and fashioning them with 19th century roller skates and all BUT COME ON! Five minutes of nothing but motherfuckers roller skating IN A WESTERN? What. The. Fuck. It would be one thing if it had any bearing on the plot, but no. Just gratuitous roller skating for the sake of roller skating.
Cimino’s meticulousness knows no bounds. There is a scene where Kristofferson gathers together the townsfolk to read the list of the 125 people to be executed. He begins reading off name after name after name… Dear Reader, I thought he was going to read all 125 names. Actually, he read about 30 or 40 names, about 25 to 30 more than was really necessary.
Although many of the cast members get lost in all the murk and muddle; guys like Jeff Bridges and Mickey Rourke make the most of their small roles. Plus, the film has a great jump scare right at the end that actually made me jump. It’s not as good as the tiger scene in Apocalypse Now or anything but it’s a goodie.
I think the film just came out at the wrong decade/century/millennium. In 1980, it was laughed off the screen. If it was released today though I think it would be called “timely” because it’s all about the tensions between honest to goodness Americans and the illegal immigrants who are mooching off their land. The parallels to what’s going on in
Ahead of it’s time or not; Heaven’s Gate has some serious fucking problems. I think Cimino’s canvas is just too broad to contain such a simplistic story. There are way too many characters. None of them get much screen time and most of them are sketched so thin that they don’t stand out through the grime.
Overall, Heaven’s Gate is nowhere near the debacle it’s reputed to be. Like Butterfly, which I just reviewed, it was more of a victim of bad press and even worse word of mouth. Taken on it’s own terms, Heaven’s Gate is an interesting failure. Of course, the story surrounding the making of the film overshadows the film itself; so I guess there’s really no way of reviewing it objectively. Unless you’re just one of those assholes that will give it Four Stars just for attention.