Criterion // 1980 // 216 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 10th, 2012
What one loves about life are the things that fade.
The greatest art is often borne out of constraints. Whether they're the constraints of genre, medium, time, or money, the most enduring examples of art owe as much to what their creators lacked as they do to whatever solitary genius the creator might have possessed. We should, therefore, be a little bit suspect when creators are given free rein, especially over large projects. One of the perennial examples in cinema is Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. At the height of his powers following the artistic, commercial, and critical successes of The Deer Hunter, Cimino embarked on a Western of epic proportions, with little in the way of constraints on his artistic vision. The result is a flawed but fascinating film that was unfairly held up as indicative of the excessive power that Hollywood had granted directors in the 1970s. With the Heaven's Gate (Blu-ray) release, Criterion has given viewers the opportunity to revisit this touchstone of modern cinema and see for themselves what all the fuss is about.
Based on the historical Johnson County War of the 1890s, Heaven's Gate follows Sheriff James Averill (Kris Kristofferson, Blade) as he tries to stop wealthy cattle interests from overtaking the local immigrant population while also dealing with his relationship with a local prostitute (Isabella Huppert, The Piano Teacher) and her other lover, the hired gun Nate Champion (Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter).
In the thirty years since its release, Heaven's Gate has reached almost mythic proportions. It's like a bedtime story told to Hollywood execs to scare them; this is what happens when you give a director too much power. The film is blamed for curtailing directorial power in the 1980s, sinking production company United Artists, and for being a totally deserved flop. None of these are quite true, but still the myth persists.
It's appropriate that Criterion's Blu-ray release of Cimino's anti-mythic Western is itself so anti-mythic. Those expecting either the total flop that contemporary reviews found or the greatest Western since Unforgiven will be equally disappointed. Instead, what's here is a beautifully flawed film that seems totally timeless and yet perfectly 1980.
As a Western, Heaven's Gate seems to cap off a certain trend in American filmmaking, taking the epic Western to its logical conclusion by de-mythologizing the West and showing it as just another theater for the same class struggles that every other part of America was subject to. In the same way, Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider would cap off another strain of man-with-no-name Westerns a few years later. All the usual elements are there -- rustlers, a sheriff, the small town in the middle of nowhere -- but their treatment here is on a different scale, at one larger and more intimate than other Western.
This effect is achieved largely through the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond. He turns the landscapes of 1980 in 1890, creating wide vistas and dusty interiors with equal skill. Whatever one thinks of the story or any other elements of the film, there is no denying that Heaven's Gate is one of the most, if not the most beautiful film released in 1980.
The other reason to love Heaven's Gate is the cast that Cimino assembled. Christopher Walken returns from The Deer Hunter to play the film's young gun, while Kris Kristofferson continues to demonstrate he's almost as good an actor as he is a songwriter. Isabelle Huppert is delightfully unrestrained in her role as the love interest. Other roles go to titans like Joseph Cotton, Brad Dourif, Jeff Bridges, and John Hurt. No one can accuse Cimino of skimping in the casting department. Of course the big names get all the credit, but much of Heaven's Gate's success is owed to the townsfolk who give its many scenes life with their lived-in appearance.
Criterion honors the film with a wonderful restoration on this two-disc Blu-ray set, including the film's longer, director's cut of 216 minutes instead of the theatrical version that runs only 149 minutes. The film's 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is a marvel. The film is supposed to be a bit brown and dusty, and the film's texture and color scheme are respected well on this disc. There's some damage to the print, and occasional noise in darker scenes, but these problems are more than compensated for by the natural look of the film and the surprising amount of detail present in the frame. It's not an honest-to-God knockout, but an impressive effort for the age and condition of the materials. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is similar. The material sounds natural and clear, with no hiss or distortion. Dialogue comes through clearly from the center, while the surrounds get used for directional effects with fair frequency. Sometimes the surrounds can be a bit overpowering, masking dialogue (though the English subtitles mitigate this problem somewhat).
Extras are sequestered on the second disc. They kick off with a 30 minute interview with Cimino and Joann Carelli that has pictures from the film playing over it. Three interviews follow, with star Kristofferson, musician Dave Mansfield, and assistant director Michael Stevenson. A short restoration demonstration gives a very clear sense of what the film might have looked like without Criterion's intervention. A teaser trailer and TV spot are also included. The usual Criterion booklet includes a fond reappraisal of the film by critic Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan and a 1980 interview with Cimino, along with a generous collection of stills from the film.
There are a pair of white elephants in the room of this release. The first is Heaven's Gate's status as a disaster and the unpleasant associations it has maintained for thirty years. Though this release does much to vindicate the film, the extras largely fail to address the significant difficulties that the film had, both in production and reception. A book (Final Cut) about the making of the film was itself turned into a documentary, and though Cimino dismisses it as "fiction," the inclusion of any material that directly addresses the context and craziness surrounding the film would have been appreciated.
The other issue with this release is that it is a two-disc set. Criterion have wisely dedicated and entire disc to the feature, but with the relatively insubstantial extras on Disc Two, it might be hard for some viewers to justify the increased price of this set. This could perhaps have been improved by the inclusion of the theatrical cut of the film for comparison purposes, since that is as much an historical artifact as this director's cut.
Heaven's Gate is a fascinating film, both for what happens on screen and the place it occupies in Hollywood history. Though some viewers will no doubt wish that this latter aspect had been addressed more directly with this Blu-ray set, there is no doubt that this Heaven's Gate (Blu-ray) edition is essentially definitive. Fans of Westerns, Cimino, and the actors should at least give this film a rental, and anyone interested in that tumultuous period of Hollywood history will likely want to own it.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 216 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Restoration Demo
* TV Spot