Heaven’s Gate

Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson in Heaven's Gate

One of the most infamous commercial disasters in Hollywood history gets another re-release, but at the correct length there is much to admire in Michael Cimino’s 1980 western.

Heaven’s Gate has a formidable legacy as the film that bankrupted United Artists, virtually ended the high flying career of its director, and led to the major studios taking fewer risks as the sun finally set on the auteur-driven New Hollywood era.

Although the truth may be more nuanced, it certainly came to symbolise the worst excesses and indulgences of the era, whether that was deserved or not.

But how does it hold up now?

Part of the problem is that ever since its New York premiere in November 1980 (when it clocked in at 219 mins), Cimino and the studio decided to pull it from release after just a week and then issue a drastically recut version later that April (148 mins).

This makes it somewhat difficult to judge, given that most audiences haven’t seen the longer version, but thanks to this new re-release on Blu-ray and DVD, we can see the version that has been personally approved by the director himself.

There are numerous sequences that have been restored and one can finally say this is the version that should be seen.

Set in Wyoming amidst the Johnson County War of 1892, it depicts the brutal struggle of Russian immigrants, as the local cattle barons gradually try to exterminate them.

Amidst this backdrop unfurls a fictionalised story involving a U.S. Marshal (Kris Kristofferson), his Harvard class mate (John Hurt), a French bordello madam (Isabelle Huppert), a hired killer (Christopher Walken), a local bar owner (Jeff Bridges) and a ruthless landowner (Sam Waterston).

When revisiting this film at the proper length there is much to feast on: Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning cinematography, the incredible use of the Montana and Idaho landscapes; and Tambi Larsen’s epic production design, which along with Cimino’s meticulous attention to detail creates a vivid depiction of the West.

For fans of the western genre there perhaps has never been as grand a vision put on screen.

The central love story doesn’t quite match up to the visuals, but the social and political themes are refreshingly bold for a mainstream American film.

Although films such as Shane (1953) had featured an avenging angel character, Cimino’s script delved deep into the class aspects of the American West.

As Jeff Bridges’ character says at one point:

“It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country.”

Now there is a line that rings down the decades to the present day.

The central love triangle mostly works with Kristofferson and Huppert making a convincing couple, and although Walken and Hurt are basically miscast in their roles, there is enough realism in the rest of the supporting cast to create a compelling atmosphere.

Watch out too for the recurring motif of circles, from the opening graduation dance at Harvard, to the skating rink, the final battle and the wider theme of the overall story.

Despite its many qualities though, there still remain flaws, the biggest of which is not length but pace.

It may have been designed to show off the extravagant visuals but instead clogs up the narrative of the film and is arguably why opinion is still split on it today.

But it remains worth seeing on its own terms and as a kind of lament for both the Western genre and the filmmaking of the 1970s.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • New Video Interview With Jeff Bridges
  • New Interview With Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond
  • Extracts From ‘Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven’s Gate’ – Michael Epstein’s acclaimed documentary based on Steven’s Bach’s book

> Buy the Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Heaven’s Gate at the IMDb and Wikipedia

The Counsellor

Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender in The Counsellor

The screenwriting debut of novelist Cormac McCarthy sees him team up with director Ridley Scott for a bleak tale set amidst the drug trade of the US-Mexican border region.

When a shady lawyer (Michael Fassbender) gets caught up in a transaction gone wrong, he starts to fully realise that his world may be a cesspit of corruption of murder, endangering not only him but his fiancee (Penelope Cruz).

Employed by a flamboyant Mexican dealer (Javier Bardem), who has a strangely sinister girlfriend (Cameron Diaz), he is warned by a business associate named Westray (Brad Pitt) that Mexican cartels can be ruthless and unforgiving when crossed.

Although an original screenplay, we are firmly in ‘McCarthy-land’, where human suffering is seemingly around every corner and harsh punishment is meted out in remorseless ways.

Ridley Scott has long been interested in bringing the novelist’s Blood Meridian to the screen and he’s admitted that when the option to make this film came up, he jumped at the chance.

The result is a dark and strange film, defiantly going against the grain of conventional studio filmmaking, with its sordid scenes of sex and violence marking it out as a rarity in the current climate of animation and safety-first blockbusters.

It may have one of the most in-demand casts of recent memory, but it largely plays them against type – Fassbender is a naive protagonist, Bardem a surreal supporting act, Diaz a wild femme fatale and Pitt a larger-than-life cowboy, with only Cruz playing it straight.

None of them are untainted by their world (although some are more tainted than others) and initially life seems good for the title character as he indirectly reaps the rewards of the drug trade before foolishly succumbing to his greedier instinct, although ironically it is a benevolent act that triggers the main events of the film.

Although the characters are distinctive, the real stars here are the writer and director: McCarthy has managed to create his grim but often disturbingly plausible visions intact, whilst Scott can do this kind of drama in his sleep as the plot unwinds with clockwork efficiency.

Scott has often been accused of being more interested in visuals than characters, but that makes him a perfect fit for this material, where humans really are pawns, and whilst McCarthy’s screenplay will undoubtedly enrage screenwriting gurus, this is no bad thing.

An early scene involving rabbits being chased and hunted by cheetahs is a forewarning of what is to come: shootings, beheadings, strangulation by weird devices.

This is a brutal world in which we see people in over their heads, affected by forces out of their control.

The oddness of the material extends to the quality — parts of the film are highly effective and stay with you long after the final credits roll, but there is also a strange familiarity here.

This may be because Cormac McCarthy has been such a cultural influence on the border region of Mexico and the US: after Breaking Bad (2008-13) and the Coen Brothers’ masterful adaptation of his own No Country for Old Men (2007), there seems to be a sense of déjà vu running throughout the film.

Despite this, there is something to admire in how it boldly defies conventions and stays true to the spirit of the screenwriter’s vision.

Some audiences will be repulsed by aspects of The Counsellor but like a fine wine may be more appreciated in the years to come.

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

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