Heaven’s Gate (1980) is a decently crafted ‘80s Western that aims to tackle issues such as immigration, racism, and political hypocrisy––with moderate results. Director Michael Cimino gives audiences a glimpse into the Wild West, specifically Casper, Wyoming, in 1890. In this small town, two Harvard graduates, Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), discover a sinister plot. The native townsfolk, angered by the recent surge of European migrants who steal their cattle and other valuable resources, decide to form a death list of 125 immigrants to regain their lost goods. With Averill now a sheriff for a nearby county and Irvine on the inside of the perpetrators’ meetings, the two must decide how to handle the situation before everyone kills each other. Benefitting from elastic performances from the leading duo and other cast members, Cimino provides a sufficient––if not consistently stellar––symbolic Western.
The film’s most vital qualities stem from its conceptual execution. While the characters are a tad thin, and even the truncated edition of the film slogs to the climax, Cimino creates satisfying mob-riling tension, fear, and angst. He does this by relying on his star-studded cast, who admittedly add unavoidable emotional weight to what might be an otherwise unwatchable movie. For example, Kristofferson’s portrayal of Averill is sullen, sturdy, and almost unflinching in the face of violence and roughhousing. But once he discovers others’ pain––his loved ones and unfamiliar immigrants alike––his heart comes charging to the surface. Each character delivers a unique take, and together, the actors give Heaven’s Gate enough emotional realism to highlight its core themes well. With these themes ringing remarkably similar to modern US issues (especially within the last seven years), the film shows why violence cannot be the answer.
dir. Michael Cimino
Screens Sunday, 9/24, 6:45pm @ Brattle Theatre
Part of the repertory series: Walken on Sunshine: Christopher Walken in the ’80s