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Heavenís Gate (Michael Cimino) 1980

Critically mauled upon its initial release, partially due to its contemplative pacing and gargantuan budget and partly because its first theatrical release was seventy minutes shorter than the director intended, Michael Ciminoís elegiac western Heavenís Gate is actually a powerful and surprisingly focused work. Ciminoís methodical attention to detail and slow plotting pay dividends throughout since the director is as interested in understanding the tensions that led to the Johnson County War of 1890, in which a group of immigrants deemed thieves were hunted down by a corporation, as the actual presentation of the battle. Even more impressive than the filmís meticulous detail, though, is that the filmís technical obsessions never comes at the expense of emotional intimacy. By the end of the filmís lengthy (3 hour and 40 minute) running time, we thoroughly understand the plight of both the immigrant farmers and the stockholders at the center of this story. What becomes startling, then, is the inability to clearly draw lines and declare who is right and wrong. Even if the villains occasionally do a bit too much moustache-twirling for the pictureís good, a surprising amount of the filmís morality falls into a gray area.

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    Visually, Cimino finds a way to convey this moral struggle by keeping his film duskily perched between day and night. The sepia tinged images and grainy film stock suggest a nostalgic yearning, but it takes a while to understand that whatís being mourned isnít simply an idealized vision of the Wild West. Instead the movie laments the death of the dreams of those colonists who came to America with aspirations of a better life. The oppression that they find in the New World, instead of being religious, is financial. Their crimes are crimes of need, stealing as they do, so their family can eat (though Cimino wisely takes time to show these same immigrants as they are drinking and gambling). The eventual insurrection is at once the release to the pressures that have been building throughout the film and senseless resolution of absolutely nothing. Itís telling that when Cimino stages a whirling skirmish near the filmís end, he observes it from enough distance that its wild circular motion resembles both the dances at the Harvard graduation at the filmís start and the roller derby line dance that the migrant workers engage in at the filmís midway point. With his standoffish perspective, Cimino shows us the mechanical similarities between these events, allowing us to glimpse a natural order in things normally portrayed as chaotic. He poetically underscores the events of his film with images like this time and again, making the denouement at once horribly shocking and inevitably obvious. If the standoff at Heavenís Gate feels inevitable, than the realization little has changed in American class structure lends the film a surprising amount of modern day relevancy. Whatever might be said about the film, it certainly isnít a waste of time. Because of its ambition, the film is sometimes sloppy, but that sloppiness is forgivable because itís the exalted, compelling kind. 

* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman