Heaven's Gate Review

Film Still
  • Heaven's Gate film still


Michael Cimino's infamous western masterwork is a true epic for our times.

Heaven’s Gate begins with collective celebration and ends with personal regret. The sprawling western tragedy in-between envisions the dawn of 20th-century America as a mythic purgatory of archetypes and groups at odds. Somehow, Michael Cimino’s genre monolith manages to balance the intimacy of emotion with its grandiose scale, never forgetting the power of a face even while painting history in wide angle.

As a narrative, the film is messy at best, even unforgivably disjointed at times, enraptured with its own angelic perspective of earthly sins. Yet, one could argue this very cocktail of indulgence and sincerity is what makes Heaven’s Gate such a fascinating experience 30-plus years after its disastrous theatrical premiere.

Set mostly in 1890, the film follows a federal marshal named Averill (Kris Kristofferson) who returns to Casper, Wyoming to find his previous home on the brink of war. European immigrants have flooded the frontier county much to the chagrin of a wealthy and influential institution called The Stock Grower’s Association, amplifying an already broadening class divide. Poverty and hunger run rampant and the situation is only intensified when the poorer citizens begin to steal cattle from the Association to feed their starving families. In order to protect their economic interests, the elite group use their influence with the American government to sanction a death list targeting key members of the makeshift migrant community.

While this particular story might not represent the dawn of American extremism, Cimino’s sweeping vision certainly feels like a new way of looking at classic themes that are still pertinent today. In considering a frontier landscape this frenzied by uncertainty and fear, Heaven’s Gate sees bodies and machines in constant motion. Flocks of people move through rows of metal structures and groves of tall green pines, always canopied beneath an endless cloudy blue sky. Criss-crossing lines and perspectives become fully realised by Vilmos Zsigmond’s audacious camera moves, which often spin through an endless array of widescreen vistas. Equal helpings of mud, grime and blood exist in the same frame as purple lilacs and shimmering mountain lakes.

To call Heaven’s Gate visually hypnotic would be an understatement. But what’s often not discussed is how moving the film is despite its meandering emotional focus. Unlike most westerns, which usually bemoan the loss of an individual person or ideal, Heaven’s Gate mourns the death of community. In the film’s penultimate action sequence, which pits the immigrant majority against the Association’s death squad in a perverse cowboy/Indian dynamic, Cimino films the violence from afar, letting the dust and smoke completely blur the frame. All sense of order is lost and acts of valour and sacrifice are, for the most part, covered up, replaced by an overall sense of cruelty and pointlessness.

Despite its grisly subject matter, Heaven’s Gate exudes a sweeping view of the Old West that at times feels uncomfortably poetic. This stylistic contradiction, taken with the film’s bloat and notorious production history, has bestowed it with a toxic reputation. But history has rightfully vindicated Heaven’s Gate as a frayed masterpiece depicting the debilitating and costly hugeness of the American ego. During the film’s devastating final moments, it’s this very grandiosity that helps Heaven’s Gate to realise a profound and unique sense of individual melancholy that feels as all-encompassing as the open range.

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