Plot: What’s it about?
Last year, one of the most surprising things happened to me. I had heard a film that had not been seen in it’s original form would be making it’s way to the big screen for one week only. I took a chance on a film that turned out to be one of the most infamous films in Hollywood history. It came out at the end of one of the biggest eras where more of the personal auteur films were being made and freedom to make a literal movie was a common thing. It cost a lot, it shut a studio down and almost every critic blasted it. It went from the fires of critical hell to the skies knocking on Heaven’s Gate.
A long time ago, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) were friends in school and a bright future laid ahead for them in friendship and togetherness. Now we are in the present day and James has some authority in Johnson County while Billy, who seemed like the most likely to succeed, got the bad end of the stick when he has a say in what goes on in the county, not that anyone listens. The two are in the middle of what seems to be a war of property. It seems that immigrants that reside there have loads of cattle divided amongst them and now the powers above Averill have investigated the matter and in the effort to make things official and save the county, they have issued a “death list” amongst those who have done so and have issued men, among them sharpshooter Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), to help take them out at fifty dollars a hit. As the war brews and the situation escalates, these three people start to realize the consequences of their actions both positively and negatively.
I always felt that this was after the west was wild and what was left of it if the towns became regular working towns such as the ones portrayed in this film. It’s also referential to note one of the towns is named Sweetwater, the future town ready for construction in Once Upon A Time In The West. From the first credits to the ambiguous ending, Heaven’s Gate is a triumph both visually and instinctually.
Here is a film that was panned all across the board upon it’s release and today almost twenty five years later, it’s a much better film viewed today. It does stretch along and the time goes by at a decent pace and from the looks of the beginning, things may be a bit unbalanced. By the beginning of the second act, we see that the first act was a set-up of things to come and the film’s pace takes a rapid turn from being casual and neutral with some excitement to fast and being at the edge of your seat as well as a bit of a tragic touch.
This is for the most part an ensemble piece and the entire cast stays on the same level when it comes to acting. There is no standout performances, only a few standout scenes for acting and all of the players end up doing a good job for the most part.
Kris Kristofferson plays James Averill as a man with a past that was so happy and is in a present that is so convoluted that he can’t begin to imagine what lies for him in the future. Isabelle Huppert, memorably plays Ella as a strong woman that leaves a good taste in the mouth both literally and figuratively. Christopher Walken plays Nate with a memorable well shot introduction and the audience is not too aware of his purpose in the film until halfway through the first act of what his intentions and his actions are and what it will lead to when the second act comes along. Amusing support comes from Jeff Bridges as the master of entertainment along the town along with Brad Dourif and look out for a young Willem Dafoe in one scene of the film, a true blink and you’ll miss him moment.
With all that was knocked about in the past, in this present Heaven’s Gate is a film who shows a beautifully photographed (by Vilmos Zsigmond) palette filled with browns and beautiful blue skies as well as a look unlike no other courtesy of director Michael Cimino who got a lot of flack for it’s initial release. Seeing this film made this viewer realize that when the smokes clear from any kind of buzz, there can be some light at the end and Heaven’s Gate is just one of a chosen many that can be seen as a film that plays better today than it did then.
Video: How does it look?
I’ll try to avoid any clichés when referring to this new transfer, but I just can’t. Seeing Heaven’s Gate on Blu-ray is like seeing it for the first time. Really. Director Michael Cimino worked with Criterion to create a new 2K restored version of his epic film and the result is nothing short of stunning. The negative used here wasn’t the original one used for the previous DVD release, rather there were major changes in regard to color and depth in the film that result in a transfer that’s literally nothing like we’ve seen before. Detail and clarity are amazing. The wide, sweeping shots seem to have a new depth to them and contrast and black levels have been cleaned up. So, yes, if you’ve only seen this on standard DVD – prepared to be blown away.
Audio: How does it sound?
Cimino also oversaw the new lossless DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack that’s on this Blu-ray and it’s the only audio track found on the disc. Still, the new mix exhibits a decidedly better range with much more action in the surrounds than before. Dialogue sounds rich and full, but the real draw here is the battle at the end of the film. Everything sounds very organic and natural be it a bullet whizzing by or the sound of fire. There isn’t a lot more to say here other than this film has never sounded better, all 217 minutes of it.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The previous DVD contained a rough trailer and nothing more. But with this new Criterion edition and Cimino’s assistance, we do get a nice selection of supplements. We start out with a “Restoration Demonstration” which, though short, does show the effort involved to make this movie look its best. It’s music only with no dialogue, but the point is made for sure. “Cimino and Carelli” is director Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli discussing how the film came to be. They also discuss the shoot of the film, Criterion’s involvement in bringing it to Blu-ray. “Kris Kristofferson” is the actor discussing his work on the film and some of his memories of the shoot. “David Mansfield” plays the violinist in the film and also served as the film’s composer. Lastly we have “Michael Stevenson” the second A.D. speaks about his involvement with the film and director Michael Cimino as well as his tireless work ethic. We also are treated to a teaser trailer, the original trailer and as per usual – an illustrated booklet with some production notes and an essay by critic Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan.