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Heaven’s Gate

Directed by Michael Cimino

USA, 1981

Cornerhouse, 1 Sept 2013

Heaven's Gate

To my mind, a well-nigh perfect film and one of the most extraordinary Westerns (if that’s the right genre) ever made.

Cimino’s narrative verve is announced right at the start.  We begin at Harvard in 1870, on a day of graduation where Jim (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy (John Hurt) are stepping out into the world, ready to inherit the nation.  There’s a raucous atmosphere of hope, triumph and joy.

Then we are all at once in Wyoming in 1890, in the midst of a troubled, bloody range war.  Billy is now a landowner, Jim is a kind of law officer.  They must, it seems, look on as immigrant smallholders are slaughtered.  Throughout, this section of the film – its bloody heart – is involving and compelling.  Billy’s flight into drunkenness is mirrored by Jim’s reluctance to take Ella (Isabelle Huppert), a local madam, by the hand.  Only Nate (Christopher Walken), a hired gun, behaves with any integrity.  The harsh brutality of this world is rendered starkly.  In particular, the rowdy chaotic battle scene is a raw, rude horror.

Finally there’s the epilogue: a boat off Rhode Island and a couple, Jim and Ella, whose memories carry too many scars.

Above all, it’s a subversive film, critical of America and of its main character, a patrician who plays at being lawman and who survives with all his privileges intact.

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