Heaven's Gate

Released before home video could be counted on to save a studio’s bottom line on just about any flop, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate is one of the all-time box-office bombs. Back then, disasters like this took down careers, and few falls were faster or farther than director Michael Cimino’s, who made this notoriously expensive Western as his follow-up to the Oscar-winning juggernaut The Deer Hunter. His career never recovered, and Heaven’s Gate almost single-handedly ended the reign of the director within the Hollywood studio system that produced so many great auteur films in the 1970s.

So, cut to 2012, and Criterion has given this tale of 1890s Wyoming’s anti-immigrant cattle wars another chance on Blu-ray, giving full deference to Cimino’s vision with this 216-minute director’s cut. Typically the only thing I like more than a Western is a long Western, but I met my match in this one; this review is based on the 124 minutes of Heaven’s Gate I could stand to watch. My take is best analogized by a scene an hour and 25 minutes into the movie: Kris Kristofferson’s James Averill meets his love interest (a gorgeous Isabelle Huppert), who takes off all of her clothes and runs around the house and then to bed. Seems like something passionate is about to happen. But instead of sealing the deal, they just kind of poop out before walking to the barn to look at a horse and carriage. Sigh. The only things clearly apparent in the confused narrative are that a bunch of rich guys want to wipe out a bunch of immigrant farmers, and Kristofferson is in a love triangle with Huppert and Christopher Walken. It’s excruciatingly slow and boring, and the relationships, politics, and geography are impenetrably murky.

However, picture ratings and words can’t describe the profound artistic statement by legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. This indescribable visual artistry in photography is the only possible reason for slogging through this wretched film. The imagery looks like it’s painted with living light and is rendered with filmic grain and true beauty. The restored sound is mostly terrific, but in some scenes the sound effects drown the dialogue. The score is often achingly pretty if too dependent on “Blue Danube Waltz” as a theme and always sounds brilliant.

Noteworthy extras include new interviews with Kristofferson and soundtrack arranger David Mansfield. A gorgeous presentation of what remains, at any run time, one of the great duds of modern cinema.

Studio: Criterion, 1980
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Audio Format: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Length: 216 mins.
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Cimino
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt