You know what annoys me? Westerns. Because they’re all – in some way, shape, or form – based on The Virginian, an overwrought “novel” about a horrible dick protagonist who drawls and lynches his way across a version of the American West about as historically accurate as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels. The dragon, in this case, being a white-hatted cowboy who can rope a steer, woo a woman, civilize the wilderness at the point of a gun, and do it all from the back of a horse before breakfast. While drunk.
But I am nothing if not a masochist, so I’m going to admit publicly that my mother recommended Heaven’s Gate to me. Her love of Westerns is equaled only by my contempt, but I trust her judgment in most things. Besides, she uttered those seven magic words: “Everyone hated it when it came out.”
My critic-sense tingling, I dutifully sat down to give the film a fair viewing. No pre-review research, no IMDb. I don’t want to be like those assholes who never pick up a video game and yet still condemn them as Home Mass-Murderer Training regimens. I figured I might as well watch a Western everyone once in awhile, just to stay in shape…so to speak. (The same reason I still play GTA IV, of course. Pedestrians aren’t about to run over themselves.) And the worse the Western the better. After all, you can unfairly tar any genre if you examine its “worst” representatives.
I’m somewhat saddened by the fact Heaven’s Gate was not nearly as bad as I’d hoped. Oh, it’s not good, sure…but was it bad enough to bankrupt a studio? Sure, it’s three and half hours at its longest, but so was every Lord of the Rings if you wanted to watch the entire fucking movie. Quite a slick way to make the audience pay twice, doubling the price of the second hit like a shady pulp-fiction drug dealer. Except the first wasn’t free. It cost $20 (U.S.) and if you were a nerd with a date (the luckiest nerd in the world) you might as well have waited for the Special Edition to come out.
Unlike modern epic, epic films, Heaven’s Gate has the decency to blank the screen out halfway through and provide an intermission, something Pause buttons make unnecessary. Unlike other Virginians, Heaven’s Gate‘s grizzled Tarzan of the Cows is a Harvard Graduate (Class of 1870) named Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson). We meet Jim and his friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt) as they giggle, drink, and dance their way through Graduation pomp befitting any costume drama. It’s all nice and pretty…but right away I recognize Billy for the drunken, frat boy douche he is; no wonder they made him Class Orator. Having already decided to hate one protagonist, I tried to find something to like about Jim…but he barely says three words to his dance partner before being carried away on the shoulders of his classmates like some kind of folk-singing football hero. I’d learn later that an earlier cut of the film contained a voice-over by Kristofferson explaining what all this is supposed to mean to us, but it seems that writer/director Michael (The Deer Hunter) Cimino decided, at one point, that such things were for pussies.
And you know what? I agree. I like that the film summarily dumps us twenty years down the time stream and leaves us to figure everything out for ourselves. Like the fact that Jim is now the Sheriff of Wyoming’s scenic (and trust me, you’ll be seeing a lot of scenery – most of it filmed in Montana, but never mind – “Harvard” was actually Oxford, and anyway it’s a Western, see?) Johnson County, a burgeoning community of recent Easter European immigrants living the homesteading life on one of the last bleeding edges of civilization. Billy, on other hand, is still a rich douchebag, who spends his days drinking with the rest of Wyoming’s rich douchebag community in the Cheyenne Club. Together, these douches form the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and we catch up with Billy just as the Associations Head, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), unveils today’s Evil Plan.
Given that all these recent immigrants are a pack of “thieves and anarchists” who only put their minds to baby-making, cattle rustling, and smashing Starbucks windows, the Association plans to eliminate one hundred and twenty-five of these undesirable plebs. They’ve even drawn up a list. Frank asks the Association to set aside five bucks a day for each member of the mercenary army he plans to raise in order to get this killin’ done, with a fifty dollar bonus for every “rustler” killed. Frank claims to have the blessing of none other than President Benjamin Harrison himself in this, so of course he gets his votes…to Billy’s drink-enabling disgust.
Meanwhile, back in Beyond the Pale County, we learn Jim’s involved with the local Hooker with a Heart of Gold, Ella (Isabelle Huppert). Too bad she also has feelings for the big landowner’s local heavy, Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). Too bad too, that Champion obviously has feelings for her, and (unlike Jim) is capable of expressing them with something other than material gifts…even if only in an awkward, Chris Walken-y way. Despite the fact that he guns down two men before we learn Ella wuvs him Nate doesn’t seem all that bad a guy. His mere presence clears whole bars and mothers cover their children’s eyes as he passes…but those things have done wonders for me…and besides, he let one rustler go after catching the man red handed with a stolen calf, so who am I supposed to be rooting for here, again? Oh, right. Everyone other than Sam Waterston.
Now highlight the last three paragraphs and copy/paste them into a new document window until the resulting document is at least as thick as that copy of the 2010 Writers Market you have gathering dust next to your bookshelf. Print the resulting document out, sit down in a chair with it, and repeatedly bash yourself in the face for at least two and a half hours. Congratulations! You have now experienced the dubious pleasures of watching the first half of Heaven’s Gate.
The second half of the film follows the usual Seven Samurai formula, minus all the badass ancillary characters. As Johnson County’s poor, huddled masses gradually realizing there’s a whole lot of pale horses on the way, and the name of those who sit on them is Death (except in Billy’s case, since by then I’d gotten used to calling Billy “High Chancellor”), they eventually unite to push back the invading mercs en masse. This culminates in a long-ish, dust-plume-and-blood-caked series of gun battles that feel much more like war film material than anything in Sergio Leone’s filmography. Or it would, if I could see what the hell was going on.
Whoever wrote this film’s plot synopsis on the IMDb labeled it an anti-Western, a phrase that, in this sphere (unlike in global geopolitical “debates”), actually has some meaning. After all, the Virginian itself made claim to being a dramatization of this very same conflict, the Johnson County Wars of 1888-92. In that case, our Designated Hero sided with the big ranchers and eventually lynched a former-friend out of some misguided sense of “honor” and “duty” or whatever. It only makes sense that an Anti-Western would wish to run over the same territory. What doesn’t make sense is, why, in this case, our Designated Hero seems to drift mindlessly through well-constructed sets and If-You-Lived-Here-You’d-Have-Seen-All-This-Natural-Beauty-by-Now backdrops, never doing anything particularly heroic…or even Sheriff-like.
Not that I mind: I spent the first half of the first half of the movie waiting for Jim to get tired of Ella’s flightiness and drop her like a hot rock. Once it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, I switched allegiance to Team Champion…but after his brush with Christian Forgiveness Walken’s Designated Villain never does much more than act like a spastic fifteen-year-old trying to sneak a first kiss (a pleasure Ella continually denies him).
Why is everyone so fascinated with Ella in the first place? I mean, sure, she’s hot (as her nude bathing scenes reveal to the absolute nth degree…not that I mind that, either – anything to stay awake) but like the apex of so many love triangles (both classic and modern) the film ignores her in favor of her suitors, who are (after all) Manly Men living Manly Male Lives on the Manliest Frontier known to Man. As a result, she comes across as indecisive, incapable of choosing her own path in life…until the moment when she actually chooses. Poorly. Maybe this is a function of my own bad experience with polyamorous relationships, but I couldn’t help the urge to sit Ella down and explain some things.
“Honey,” I’d say, “you’ve got two more-or-less-okay guys here, and surprise, they both have stiffies for you. Plenty of women would gladly strangle kittens to have this kind of problem, so good on you. But unless you can talk them into a hot-n’-heavy threesome, fast, you’re gonna have to pick one and stick with him. After all, there’s an armed posse of of fifty-odd thugs on its way to wipe you out of history, with Sam Waterston leading the pack.”
A good film might’ve focused on the whole “War” aspect of things and saved a good hour of film by cutting back the “Johnson County”…but that would’ve destroyed what I’m sure Cimino considered the entire point of this exercise: de-mythologizing the American west. Except the film is so muddled, I’m not even sure that was Cimino’s original point. Even if it was, Heaven’s Gate is disingenuous at best and downright evil at worst. Jim, Ella, Nate, Frank Canton, and even W. C. “Billy” Irvine were, after all, historical characters, in the sense that real people with their real names actually participated in the really-real Johnson County Wars. They led real lives and (in Jim, Nate, and Ella’s cases) died really horrible deaths, but apart from the almost-oppressively-detailed set design Heaven’s Gate makes no pretensions to historical accuracy. Which brings up another great reason why I hate Westerns in particular and “historical” epics in general: they continually disrespect the dead.
If you’re going to tell an a-historical story (i.e., one that focuses on a typical Hollywood Love Triangle to the exclusion of everything else – even the supposedly “main” plot) why use historical characters at all? The real life Ella Watson (who, whether or not she possessed a Heart of Gold, was not a Hooker, thank you very much) and Jim Averill (who was not a sheriff, but a grocer) were lynched several years before the events of this film took place. Whatever their relationship actually was (to each other, or to the local big-wigs from whom they probably did rustle the occasional cow now and again – and good on them) it was probably fraught with just as much intrigue and drama as the torturous exercise in time-killing that consumes the middle-third of this film. Especially since I correctly guessed the outcome half an hour in. Being right never took so long to feel good.
And that is (by all accounts, and all the on-screen evidence) all Cimino’s fault. Here, he took “excess” out a whole new door and paraded it down the street for all to see at the slowest possible pace. There’s little need for me to recount the film’s now-legendary production difficulties. Cimino’s financial backers have already done that, and really, that’s incidental to the final product. Thanks to Cimino’s obsession with scenery and large numbers of jabbering people, Heaven’s Gate is a leaden slog of a film, one you don’t watch so much as endure. I might call it a character study were there any characters knocking about…other than the walking cliches already mentioned.
Kristofferson glides through his role, seemingly attempting to deconstruct the traditional Western hero by making him as dull and uninteresting as possible. I don’t mind his lack of heroism: its his lack of determination that set my teeth on edge as I waited for him to bloody-well do something. Other than moon over Ella. Or wave his dick at Chris Walken. Or drink with Jeff Bridges, the town barkeep, all of whom are more interesting (and certainly more heroic) than our Designated Hero. Walken himself wins most of his sympathy points by virtue of being Chris Walken…but that’s like saying, “even when pizza’s bad, it’s still good.” At least the quiet determination Huppert brings to her character makes her thick accent bearable, dropping context clues that allow me to follow her conversations without turning on closed captioning.
Except you will need your closed captioning, thanks to Cimino’s realistic-but-unfortunate decision to have every citizen of Johnson County speak at once whenever a group of three or more of them assemble. The too-frequent crowd scenes are a cacophonous mix of Russian, Polish, Yiddish and at least six types of German, all degenerating in a massive muddle that effectively drowns out any information, be it relevant or otherwise. Cimino plainly pins his sympathies to Johnson County’s immigrant community…and then proceeds alienate me from them, interweaving our Designated Love Triangle with scenes that make the County’s population look exactly like the babbling rabble Racist- and Xenophobic-Americans of the time (and ours, apparently) believed them to be.
I think all of this flows from the fact that, as a writer, Cimino makes a damn fine director. For the first half of the film his shots are beautifully composed. If you framed them and hung them on any number of museum walls, wine-sipping, pretentious assholes the world over would cluck their tongues in pretentious, assholic approval. I certainly did. (Duck Pond Chardonnay, and thank you for asking). But pretty pictures do not a good movie make…especially not if you care nothing for anyone contained therein. The second half of the film might’ve been just as pretty if Ciminio hadn’t (once again) decided to commit aesthetic suicide, obscuring nearly everything in impenetrable dust.
This is too little, too late, I know, but I love to end on a high note, so I’m going to tell old Mad Man Mike Cimino how it’s done. You wanna take the piss out of the Western, as a genre? Fine. Here’s you’re pitch: “Rich white guys win, poor guys (of all colors) loose and, as always, the United States prevails.” Perhaps the five hour version our auteur originally had in mind would’ve fixed most of the characterization problems…perhaps the ninety-minute cut that drove critics screaming from the theaters when it premiered in 1980 solved most of the problems of focus…but as it stands, Heaven’s Gate is three hours of your life you might as well spend watching Lord of the Rings again. While drunk. Avoid it like you’d avoid a poor, non-Native English speaker. With the plague.