Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 11, 2012)
When I did an Internet search for “biggest movie flops of all-time”, plenty of cinematic duds appeared. One showed up on virtually every list: 1980’s Heaven’s Gate. Michael Cimino’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter, the movie came in radically over-budget, pulled in almost no money, received brutal reviews and essentially crippled Cimino’s career and the studio that released it.
It’s hard to judge the biggest bomb ever, but given all those factors, Gate might qualify. When a suicidal cult adopts a film’s name, that might be a sign that it was an unmitigated disaster.
While it’s clear that Gate will always maintain its reputation as a horrific failure, some critical reappraisal has occurred over the last 32 years, partially due to a “Director’s Cut” of the film. This adds 67 minutes to the movie’s original 149-minute running time and will be the subject of this review.
Initially set in 1870, we see the Harvard graduation of James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt). After that, we leap ahead 20 years and re-encounter Averill as a sheriff in a Wyoming +territory dominated by immigrants from Eastern Europe who attempt new lives as farmers. To survive, the new arrivals sometimes steal cattle, which the powers that be punish in a severe manner.
Back in the state capital of Casper, members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) create a list of 125 “thieves, anarchists and outlaws” they’ll use agents to slaughter. Even though his old pal Irvine belongs to the association, he can’t persuade the others to use less severe measures to curtail cattle rustling. Averill warns Canton to keep these men out of his territory, which sets up future confrontations.
In addition, we see Averill’s relationship with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the madam at a local brothel. They seem to love each other, but another man interferes, as Association foreman Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) also has designs on Ella. This leads toward conflicts on multiple levels.
Even though I was only 13 when Gate first hit screens, I knew about its notoriety and failure. Like most people, though, I didn’t actually see the movie – and that didn’t change until this Criterion Blu-ray ended up in my possession.
Given the film’s bad rap, it became awfully hard to view it through unbiased eyes. I knew nothing about story or characters; I was aware it was a Western but that was the extent of my pre-viewing knowledge. Nonetheless, the stench of 32 years attached to Gate created a fair amount of skepticism in me as I launched the movie.
It probably didn’t help that I never liked Deer Hunter. I found it to be rambling and self-indulgent, so this didn’t lead me to have hopes that the much-derided Gate would fare better.
Alas, my fears essentially came true, though for a while, I thought Gate might offer something pretty immersive. The film starts slowly, as the Harvard sequence seems to be essentially superfluous. Yes, it sets up some themes/character notions, but these don’t pay off in a strong enough way to justify the time they fill; I think the flick would work better if it jumped straight ahead to 1890 and didn’t bother with the college graduation.
Once we get to Wyoming, though, the film shows promise. In a manner atypical of Cimino’s MO, Gate sets up its setting and circumstances in a tight, involving manner that lets us get interested in the issues we follow. Sure, it’s all pretty typical for a Western, but that’s fine; it doesn’t need to reinvent any genre wheels.
When we meet Ella, though, the entire soufflé starts to collapse. This is where Cimino becomes more and more self-indulgent, as the movie’s pace slows to a crawl to let us spend time with Ella, Averill and Champion. Massive amounts of cinematic real estate become devoted to long, meandering scenes between/among these characters.
That would be fine if these sequences did much to develop the roles and relationships, but they don’t. Like Terrence Malick, Cimino appears to be in love with his landscape, so we’re subject to long, languid shots of the Wyoming terrain.
And it looks great, but it doesn’t create an interesting story. Gate doesn’t manage to give us intriguing material to attach to its lovely visuals. The characters don’t really develop, so we’re stuck with them for long patches that go nowhere.
As I watched Gate, I began to wish I’d seen the 149-minute version. I believe the film sorely needs editing to reduce its massive amounts of flab and superfluous material, but since it had a much-loathed shorter edition, it would look like I’m wrong.
Perhaps I am incorrect – perhaps any abridged take on Gate would be as flawed as the 1980 cut apparently was. Or perhaps the problems were specific to that particular version and a different edit would fix them.
I don’t know, but I can’t help but feel that Gate contains a good movie desperate to escape from these meandering confines. At its best, it gives us an interesting Western, but the film too often wanders off course and engages in self-indulgent material. Gate has potential that it doesn’t fulfill.