The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Heaven's Gate

After winning Best Picture and Best Director for 1978's The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino spent the next two years working on his next project.  It was an epic that would debunk many of the myths about the west in the latter half of the 1800s that many people took as an absolute truth.  Titled Heaven's Gate, it infamously became known as the movie that derailed Cimino's career and destroyed United Artists in the process.  The production did create one of my all-time favorite lines when the studio wanted to know how far behind schedule Cimino was on the sixth day of filming.  The answer?  'We're five days behind schedule.'

Released in 1980, Heaven's Gate has its fair share of similarities with The Deer Hunter.  How to put this nicely?  Cimino loved a very natural style (i.e.: slow, very slow) with stories that were in no rush getting to their destination.  And if they didn't get to that destination?  No worries.  Working with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Cimino creates a beautiful movie that completely utilizes the beauty of Montana.  But at a cost because the story is thrown by the wayside.  Long, lllllllong scenes of a rider approaching a cabin in a mountain valley drag on. For me, it got to the point where I got sick of looking at nature.  Just tell the damn story! 

After visiting St. Louis, Wyoming marshal Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) returns home to find a conflict brewing. The wealthy landowners/cattle barons are fed up with the poor farmers and settlers -- most of them immigrants trying to start a life -- who keep stealing their cattle and destroying the land.  One man, Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), serves as their enforcer, killing anyone believed of stealing cattle. At first, Jim doesn't seem interested in the problem.  He tries to convince his girlfriend Ella (Isabelle Huppert), the local owner of a brothel, to leave with him, but she refuses.  Champion is also interested in Ella, leaving her conflicted as what to do.  Her problem is solved when the landowners (led by an evil Sam Waterston) go the government for help and a list is circulated of 125 farmers who will be killed.  A small army of gunmen descend on the county ready to wipe out anyone who stands in their way.

This is now the longest movie I've ever seen at 219 minutes, replacing The Seven Samurai, and at times it felt longer.  God forbid, there's rumors of a 5-hour version out there somewhere.  It's easier to judge this movie in two segments; pre and post intermission.  Pre-intermission is awful and a painful experience.  Two scenes rival Deer Hunter's wedding scene, a Harvard graduation in 1870 that serves no purpose, and a dance scene that goes on and on.  Cimino is one of the most self-indulgent directors I've come across, seemingly wanting to show off what a great director he was. His budget was around $11 million, but it went $30 million beyond that.  Apparently, he shot almost 200 hours of footage.  He clearly went all out to show the reality of the developing west whether it be sets or costumes, but its almost overkill by the 2nd hour or so.

These scenes could have served a purpose in a shorter way, but instead they bring the already stagnant story to a halt.  That's the whole movie too, long, extended shots that don't do anything other than look good.  I'm curious about the 149-minute version because in a condensed form, the movie might be worth watching.  On the other hand, I have little interest in seeing this one again.

The one slight saving grace of the movie is post-intermission when Waterston's army of gunfighters goes on the hunt.  Parts are still too slow, but this nameless, faceless villain is a great choice.  Walken's Champion has a change of heart when he sees the tactics being used and goes out in a blaze of glory.  The farmers/settlers finally decide to do something and in a bloody battle take on the gunfighters.  Both sides take heavy casualties, but we know nothing about these people.  In several scenes, these foreign settlers yell at each other at meetings and then the battle comes along and they get blown away.  It's a remarkably well-done sequence (start HERE with SPOILERS of course) but on an emotional level does nothing, and isn't that the point of an epic scene like that?  To make any sort of emotional connection with the viewer, but that's this movie in a nutshell.

Filling out his cast, Cimino assembles an incredible list of actors including the already mentioned Kristofferson, Walken, Waterston, and Huppert.  There's also Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, John Hurt, Brad Dourif, Geoffrey Lewis, Joseph Cotten, and Terry O'Quinn.  But with all that talent assembled, Walken and Huppert are the only ones to really distinguish themselves.  Kristofferson mumbles his way through all his lines, Hurt is required to be drunk, Rourke and Lewis show up, get introduced and are killed, and Cotten has a one-scene cameo.  I'll add Bridges to the list, he's solid as a saloon owner working with the farmers.  It seems like such a waste to bring all these talented actors together and then not give them much development.

I think I gave this movie a pretty fair shot from the start.  But my objections from The Deer Hunter rolled over to Heaven's Gate.  There are just too many plotholes you could drive an 18-wheeler through that are never resolved.  Like how/why did Kristofferson move west, apparently leaving a wife behind?  It's confusing at times, boring at other times, and generally a mess of a movie.  Tons of potential, TONS, but it just isn't a very good movie. 

Heaven's Gate <----trailer (1980): * 1/2 /****

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