Wyoming, 1890. James Averill is the Sherriff of Johnson County, a county largely inhabited by foreign immigrants. The wealthy cattle owners view the immigrant farmers as a nuisance and hindrance to them enlarging their own land. The cattlemen's association, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, effectively declares war on the immigrant farmers, and gets the state government's blessing. They assemble an army of guns-for-hire, and, backed by the U.S. Cavalry, set out to rid the state of the immigrants. James Averill's heart is with the immigrants, but he is not sure they have a chance of winning the inevitable war.Written by
Heaven's Gate seems to attract extreme reactions: outright dismissal or unqualified admiration. It is an extreme film, in length, theme and treatment. Its faults have been well-rehearsed, but some are overstated and, equally, some extraordinary virtues seem to have been little noticed. The film is very slow, certainly in the first half, but the central plot is interesting. The Johnson County disturbances exemplify a critical moment in American history, even if the sub-plot of the alienated Harvard man, at the opening and closing of the film, is irredeemably trite. That the working out of the plot is incoherent and chaotic is not a problem - these characteristics are implicit in the term "disturbances" and are an effective metaphor for the central concern of the film. The settlers are disorderly in the conduct their lives and community affairs, they are thieves, not especially lovely people, and the moral balance is tipped in their favour only by the arrogance of power of the Stockmen's leader.
Kris Kristofferson's plays his leading role to the limit of his talent as an actor, but sadly that talent is very small. However, since the part requires him to say little, this is not a fatal flaw. John Hurt plays a decadent drunk as well as an irrelevant and ridiculous part will permit. On the other hand, Isabelle Huppert's performance is outstanding: every expression, every nuance in the tone of her voice, is convincing. The subdued photography, with its narrow palette, is highly effective in communicating the sheer colourless drudgery that life at the frontier must have involved. Most striking of all is the soundtrack, that constant bustle of noise, the rushing of trains and carts and horses and men and wind across the range. This film captures a living experience and the soundtrack does most to bring it alive.
Heaven's Gate is a strange confusion of a film, but in that confusion many good things can be found.
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