by Pauline Kael
While watching the three-hour-and-thirty-nine-minute Heaven’s Gate, I thought it was easy to see what to cut. But when I tried afterward to think of what to keep, my mind went blank. The writer-director Michael Cimino uses a garbled version of the Johnson County war as his subject. In Johnson County, Wyoming, in 1892, the Stock Growers Association tried to drive new settlers out of the state. The cattlemen claimed that settlers were stealing their cattle, and when they couldn’t get the alleged rustlers convicted in the courts they hired mercenaries to hang them or shoot them. Only two people are known to have been killed as a result of the conflict, but the movie turns the events into a shoot-’em-up holocaust, in which the helpless poor are destroyed. And, by implication, will always be destroyed. Cimino might have taken his perspective oh American history from one of Gore Vidal’s smiling TV chats with David Susskind, who is always profoundly impressed when Vidal explains that since the banks and big business secretly run everything, the American political system is a farce. The conception is a complete downer; there’s practically no one left alive at the end—only the marshal, Kris Kristofferson, who seems groggy from the effort to act, anyway. (When he speaks, his eyes are far away; he seems to be trying to read a teleprompter across the river.) Vilmos Zsigmond’s soft, golden cinematography is extraordinary, but, with all the dust and smoke and mist and fog, after a while the pictorial effects turn into a beautiful blur. The movie is so unreal—so distant and vaporous—that its message of hopelessness leaves no impression. It just drifts by.
I’ve seen a lot of worse movies—though perhaps none with such a woozy, morose mixture of visual virtuosity, overarching ambition, and slovenly writing. I think that Cimino did have a vision, but you don’t have to be a clear thinker to be a visionary. (It may help if you’re not.) The vistas and the crowd scenes are huge, as in a David Lean epic, but not so static or literal-minded. Cimino’s is a different sort of madness—he goes for mood, atmosphere, movement. There’s so much background action (horses galloping, peasants trudging) that you can’t hear the dialogue up front that might help you to understand what’s going on; Cimino is big on hubbub. The settlers are bizarrely homogeneous: a whole community from some Bulgarian village seems to have moved to Johnson County, and another whole community from the Ukraine. The immigrants’ languages and customs are intact, along with their choral groups; the women, in white babushkas, are bent low pulling a plow. Isabelle Huppert appears, strips, and rushes outdoors; she’s a little woodland nymph gambolling about. She’s also the madam of the local whorehouse and a fearless fighter for the rights of the poor. It’s a Sigmund Romberg operetta that turns into a Dovzhenko movie, with a little help from Benoit Brecht. Yet even when everybody is riding around hysterically and shells are bursting, the movie seems to be in a fugue state. The bloody actions don’t build to any narrative purpose; it’s like a movie made by a cataleptic, who can’t remember that Huppert doesn’t have to tell Kristofferson that the leader of the mercenaries, Christopher Walken, wants her to be his wife, because she already told him, a few scenes back. As a plutocrat who knows how immoral the Association’s policies are but is too weak not to go along with them, John Hun wanders through, tossing his russet locks, addressing cultivated ironic thoughts to the clouds, and giving a performance that is so masochistically rotten that Charles Laughton in his Heaven/Hell must be weeping in envy. In just about every sequence in which Hun appears, he flaunts his drunken misery by taking swigs from a dainty silver flask that wouldn’t hold enough to make a sparrow tipsy. There are bits from all over in Heaven’s Gate. It’s a movie addict’s vision of the class struggle—a composite. The spirit is late-sixties, as if Cimino had just become alienated. His romanticism is as movie-ish as his alienation. There’s even a revival of the scene of the stalwart man (Kristofferson) bravely trying to down the terrible pie that the loving woman (Huppert) has baked for him.
Some great movies have been made by hustlers who were also dreamers; what has tripped up Cimino this time is that he is innocent in a way that is indistinguishable from ignorance. In a position of power after his The Deer Hunter won the Academy Award, he inflated a Western script he’d written years before, turning it into an elegy for the downtrodden—and exposed a fan’s sensibility. It’s very like the dislocated, floating sensibility that Zeffirelli revealed in the 1979 The Champ. Doing his remake of the 1931 American film that had touched him deeply when he saw it as a child in Italy, Zeffirelli directed as if he had never met a human being. His modern American prizefight milieu was full of hearty peasants clustering in courtyards and forming patterns for the camera. And, playing the ex-wife of a dese-dem-dose prizefighter—a woman who had walked out on her husband and infant son and become a fashion consultant—Faye Dunaway was dressed like a dowager empress; when she m.c.’d a fashion show and recited the descriptions of the gowns, the buyers yelled “Bravo!,” as if she were Pavarotti, and when she spoke to her child she felt him up with her voice and nuzzled his neck amorously. This sort of insanity has always been endemic in movies. Cimino’s hearty peasants have their simple, earthy pleasures—a cockfight, spitting on each other, brawling. When it comes down to it, they’re just funny foreigners. They don’t even discuss organizing to protect themselves against the mercenaries; it takes a Harvard man (Kristofferson) to show them how to fight. Yet Cimino might have got by with all the snobbishness and the bathos (Zeffirelli did) if he had just used a little street wisdom and told a story. Heaven’s Gate is no worse a movie than Star Trek or The Black Hole or Raise the Titanic. I’d say the performances in these four films are about on the same level (though maybe more convulsing in Raise the Titanic). What makes Cimino’s picture truly intolerable is that he got caught up in the visual possibilities and lost sight of basics. You can’t make out what’s going on or who is in love with whom or where people who are old friends could possibly have met or what this little French mouse Huppert is doing scampering through the picture.
The day after the first disastrous press screenings, United Artists made the announcement that at Cimino’s request Heaven’s Gate in its present form was being withdrawn. It could be said that the press had been waiting to ambush Cimino. His public remarks over the past couple of years since The Deer Hunter had invited it, and so had the cost of Heaven’s Gate, which swelled to somewhere between thirty-six million and fifty million dollars, depending on whether the interest and other expenses are included. And it’s easier to jump on a picture like this one than on, say, Star Trek, which is so impersonal that there’s no one in particular to blame. But Heaven’s Gate is a numbing shambles. It’s a movie you want to deface; you want to draw mustaches on it, because there’s no observation in it, no hint of anything resembling direct knowledge—or even intuition—of what people are about. It’s the work of a poseur who got caught out. This poseur does have an eye, though; he may not be able to think straight but he’s a movie director.
The New Yorker, December 22, 1980