Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is an epic film without a center. Using the Johnson County War of 1892 as its backdrop, the movie at its heart tells a fairly uninteresting and uninvolving triangle love story where emotions are highly contained and character development stifled to the point of irritation. The historical backdrop which frames this inert tale is often beautifully and moodily represented and is most handsomely and expensively mounted, but it’s difficult getting inside the skins of any of these characters and even more problematic caring about what happens to any of them.
Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (Blu-ray)
Directed by Michael Cimino
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 216 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
MSRP: $ 49.95
Release Date: November 20, 2012
Review Date: November 19, 2012
The Wyoming Cattle Growers Association headed by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) has drawn up a death list of 125 immigrants, people who the association feels aren’t worthy of occupying their territory with their thieving ways and with the government’s authorization plans a systematic annihilation of the poor area ranchers. Nathan Champion who begins the skirmish on the side of the WCGA (Christopher Walken) has something of a change of heart when he learns that the woman he loves, brothel madam Ella Watson’s (Isabelle Huppert), name appears on the list, but she resists his proposal of marriage and also the offer of her other suitor, territory marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), to leave with him once the town mayor fires him thus leaving him with no good reason for staying.
Michael Cimino’s vision for his western epic is certainly captured on film in often lush, atmospheric, and awe-inspiring visuals (cinematography by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond), but there’s no denying he’s often indulgent to the detriment of his film’s efficacy. The entire twenty-minute opening sequence featuring the graduation of Harvard’s Class of 1870 accomplishes nothing of significance (we’re introduced to John Hurt’s cryptic Billy Irvine character who’s the film’s most ineffective enigma) though it gives the director a chance to stage an exquisite waltzing sequence on the green after the ceremony. Elsewhere he allows his camera to focus often too leisurely on moments of loveliness or frontier barbarism (cockfights, Ella bathing in the nude, an evening of music and roller skating, a solitary dance between Ella and James, and numerous murders often in close-up) that slow the film’s momentum to a crawl, and the dialogue scenes (Cimino wrote the script himself) are often piddling and writerly. The film’s climactic war sequence runs about forty minutes in two waves. The staging is again impressive especially when Cimino takes his camera high to see the swirling bands of fighters or capture the battle strategies in their widescreen magnificence, but details in the battles are often obscured by excessive dust and gun smoke thus limiting their effectiveness by frustrating the viewer.
Kris Kristofferson gives his role a mighty effort trying to establish relationships with other actors who often aren’t giving him much in return. Key among those is Isabelle Huppert whose monotone, inexpressive performance is a black hole in the center of the movie. To be fair, the French actress was attempting to act in English, but she seems so lost and so uncommitted to the role and the film that her lack of chemistry with both Kristofferson and Christopher Walken is palpable. Walken himself must play a character who undergoes a change of heart without being given much in the way of scenes in order to make it convincing, and he’s never been an effective physical brute which he must also play here. The number of fine actors basically squandered in inconsequential roles is quite large: John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Geoffrey Lewis. Sam Waterston has some juicy scenes as the movie’s central villain which he plays without overdoing it, and Richard Masur, almost alone among the immigrants, makes much of his few scenes as the immigrant Cully who’s holding down a responsible job with the railroad that doesn’t in any event seem to cut much slack with the WCPA.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 is faithfully reproduced and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The film’s clarity and sharpness are never less than accurate, sometimes featuring hazy contrast for the Harvard scenes and later on with crisp imagery showing an outstanding faithfulness to the original look of the movie (though Isabelle Huppert has been given some customary glamour shots in softer focus). Color is rich and superbly realized with believable flesh tones throughout. Black levels aren't the deepest possible, but that is the transfer’s only small lapse. Age-related scratches and dirt have been dealt with beautifully. The film has been divided into 53 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix has an excellent stereo spread across the front soundstage but rarely ventures into the rear channels. The effectively atmospheric score of folk songs and classical tunes arranged by David Mansfield is spread through the entire soundstage and has been masterfully recorded. The audio track’s most problematic feature is caused by Cimino’s tendency to occasionally stage dialogue scenes amid the furor and din of crowds and background sound effects. There are several sequences where dialogue is partially obscured by background sound, and you may find the subtitles especially helpful during these moments. Whether this is part of the original intentions of the sound design or if it’s an artifact of this transfer is a question others will have to answer.
All of the video featurettes are in 1080p. All of the extras are contained on the second disc in the set.
Director Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli share memories and opinions on the film for 31 minutes in this audio conversation with stills and film clips played as background. (Cimino does by far most of the talking.) He discusses his approach to writing without any formal training, his attention to making the film as accurate as possible, his directorial techniques, and the editing team he assembled for the film.
Star Kris Kristofferson shares memories of the movie in a 9 ¼-minute interview. He talks about the appeal of the movie for him, the personal problems he was going through during its making, his trust of the director, and his most difficult scene to shoot.
Musician David Mansfield shares memories of his time on the film in this 8 ¾-minute interview conducted in 2012. He talks about his career up to the time of making the film (at age 22), particular vivid memories of certain scenes (roller skating while playing the violin), and his approach to arranging the folk tunes for the movie.
Michael Stevenson who served as second assistant director is interviewed for 8 minutes. He talks about previous directors he had worked for and how they all prepared him for working with tough taskmaster Cimino, his jobs on the film, and why the excesses of extras were so necessary for several of the scenes in the movie.
A restoration comparison shows many before and after shots with interspersed text pages explaining the restoration process which runs 2 ½ minutes.
A teaser trailer runs 1 ½ minutes. A TV spot runs 1 ¼ minutes. Both are presented in 4:3.
The enclosed 41-page booklet contains the chapter listing, cast and crew lists, numerous color stills from the film, film historian Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan’s appreciation of the movie, and a vintage interview with Michael Cimino which appeared in American Cinematographer magazine in 1980.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Fans of the often vilified Heaven’s Gate can now have a sparkling edition of the movie to watch courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Though the bonus features only barely hint at the enormous problems and backlash the film generated and thus don’t give an accurate picture of the entire story surrounding Heaven’s Gate, the film itself is the most important thing, and few should find reasons to grumble with this excellent Blu-ray edition.