Heaven’s Gate

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

Have you ever felt this way? Certain films really get savaged when they come out, both critically and culturally. It starts to make you wonder. There can be a blood-in-the-water tone to the conversation. We turn into mobs, and often without seeing the film itself. Can it really be all that bad?

Sometimes you want to give these movies a chance, and to try and put aside the prevailing preconceptions as you do so. People have been wrong before. What about Greed, or Rules of the Game, or Lola Montes? The critics misunderstand, or they’ve got an agenda to which the film is subordinated. Audiences certainly err, or maybe just don’t know where to turn, or what to do with groundbreaking material.

I missed in Heaven’s Gate in 1980. Through intervening years I’ve been learning to resist the culturally prevalent, pretty destructive habit of hating for hate’s sake. How does that help anybody? Let’s give this thing a chance!

Well. Critics can have agendas that obscure actual critical objects, and they can miss the point of things. Audiences can be complacent, or overly resistant to innovation and challenge. And the times can catch up with the film that was so ahead of its own. But the fact is that this really is an unholy mess of a movie. Yikes! It starts handsomely, and in fact it establishes and maintains a high and level of visual expressiveness. Its designers and cinematographers accomplished tremendous things, regardless of shortcomings of story and directorial strategy. But boy do those things ever shortcome!

Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick are visionaries, and generations of Hollywood Professionals (as celebrated in Hollywood, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s great 1980 documentary series on Thames Television) provide us with endless examples of near transcendental craftsmanship. Heaven’s Gate strains for the one and squanders the other, ultimately ending up—for almost four whole hours!—with neither.

The roller skating sequence is remarkable! And the golden hour, of course. (But at what cost!) For the rest, however, it is as they have been saying all along. Sound, fury. You know what that adds up to …