Heaven's Gate - Blu-ray Review

'finds its message amongst the rise of big, rich America, and the feeling that the poor have no place, voice or right'

There's a scene perhaps just over an hour in to Heaven's Gate which tells you almost everything you need to know about what is to come. After a rigorous segment of group dancing, on roller skates no less, the Heaven's Gate meeting hall-cum-dance theatre empties and James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) is left alone with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and the band. John (David Mansfield) starts to play waltzing music on his violin. The rest of the band join in. James and Ella dance. The dust settles.

The scene, perfectly shot by director Michael Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, is a last waltz without any signposting; the last vestige of joy and entertainment before something wicked this way comes. The community - who have significantly just exited the hall - will never be the same.

At times like this - and there are many - Cimino's three and half hour epic excels. There's beautiful Montana and Idaho scenery throughout (standing in for Wyoming), there's great tragedy at the heart and some perfect Western grandstanding by Kristofferson and a slightly under-used Christopher Walken, whose late no-nonsense assassination of a particularly hateful character is nothing short of superb.

Jeff Bridges mumbles superbly as a bartender/ringmaster/clown, giving American voice to the group of harassed immigrants the film focuses on, finding its message amongst the rise of big, rich America, and the feeling that the poor have no place, voice or right. It is notable just who it is at the end of the film who needs saving and just how much assistance they receive, when compared to the 'help' sent the way of the immigrant group; only bullets and harsh words.

This end though provides one of the most significant problems in a film as shot through with them as it is with beauty. There's evidence here that people have been spending far too long blowing far too much stuff up far before Michael Bay and Transformers arrived on the scene. Cimino subjects us to a massive stand-off, which cannot be compulsive not matter how hard it tries, because of its sheer length. Finally, when it does end, the director indulges in not one but two codas, neither of which was needed (the second one in particular is awful, the first rather disappointing for story reasons), further evidence that a severe editorial trim might have benefited this remarkably.

Elsewhere there are tonal and thematic problems which perhaps a shorter film could have hidden but at this length appear several times. Most notable are the fact that Cimino, whilst apparently casting the 'poor' as the wronged, also frequently characterises them as a slightly lecherous, rowdy rabble, willing to break into a fist fight at a moments notice. Their apparent counterpart, John Hurt - introduced in an almost entirely redundant prologue at Harvard - spouts semi-soused 'wisdom' throughout, failing to fit in or to add much; succeeding in being largely annoying.

Elements such as this cannot bring down the beauty of Cimino's piece, but certainly they do have the effect of occasionally plucking you out of a stupor, induced by broad horizons, protected by the Western gun of Kristofferson's perfectly drawn hero. A fascinating  and often involving epic, but not a wholly successful one.

Heaven's Gate is available now on UK DVD and Blu-ray.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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