Heaven's Gate; Western drama, USA, 1980; D: Michael Cimino, S: Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke
Harvard University, 1870. Jim Averill and Billy Irvine are slowly saying farewell to their student days. Wyoming, 20 years later: Jim is a sheriff who has to protect Slavic immigrants from Europe from rich cattle owners, among them also Billy. The rich tycoons are afraid that the immigrants will steal their cattle so they hire outlaws to kill them. Jim has a relationship with prostitute Ella and is shocked when he finds out she is also on the 'black list'. Nate worked for the rich owners, but decided to quit when he caught colleagues when they tried to rape Ella, and is killed by them. The army ends the conflict much to the immigrants disadvantage and saves the rich owners who kill Ella. In 1903, Jim travels in a ship.
After "The Deer Hunter", director Michael Cimino experienced a flop with his western ballade "Heaven's Gate" which cost 44 million $ and grossed only 3 million $ at the box office, whereas numerous critics showed unprecedented hate and deliberate lack of will to understand the film at all, panning it and even going so far to call it "one of the worst", but today, from a sober perspective, such reactions are hard to comprehend since it's a matter of a quality film. In the excellent opening, Kristofferson's character Jim is running to Harvard while his colleague, Hurt's character Billy, is holding a goofy speech in front of the students and then he goes off to dance with the ladies. Then there's a cut and 20 years later we find Jim as the sheriff while Billy is one of the rich cattle owners who are illegally trying to expel Slavic immigrants from Wyoming - it's a great, contemplative premise where the old colleagues from student days end up on opposite sides, but it's a pity that from there on Hurt hardly ever shows up again in the story, since such a decision didn't crystallize their relation completely and remained foggy.
Maybe Cimino is a tad forcing his style too much, but many of the scenes filmed here are almost poetic, like the one were one immigrant is killed by the shadow of a man with a gun that can be seen on the hanged sheet, or the romantic moment where sheriff Jim is eating the food of his lover Ella who takes her clothes off on the table and dashes off to the bedroom. A daring, ambitious and precise display of mise-en-scene, even though the 3.5 hour running time makes the film seem rather repetitive and excessive, which may or may not be such a burden to the viewer, depending on which kind of type everyone is. The whole film is hermetic: for instance, what did the author wanted to symbolize by filming the dance of Jim and Ella in black and white? Maybe the idyllic good old times, and that's not such a pretentious decision as many would like it to be.