Customer Reviews: Heaven's Gate (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
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on May 14, 2005
There is just no beating around the bush when people mention Michael Cimino's 1980 film, "Heaven's Gate." You either love it or hate it...there is only black and white when discussing this film. Having just seen the reconstructed director's cut, I will follow that trend and state: "Heaven's Gate" is a superior film.
I first saw the butchered, approximately 2+ hours version in the theaters several years ago and had to agree that it was pretty bad: incoherent, of course... badly both sight and sound. At the time it reminded me of those badly made European productions in which every actor is speaking a different language and after the fact, the film is dubbed into Italian or French. The film was literally a mess.
In its glorious 3-½-hours+ state, though, "HG" is a pleasure to behold. It is a grand saga dealing with greed, the loss of innocence and how money name a few issues it tackles. It's scope is on the grand scale of such films as Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard," Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900." What makes these films special, thoughtful and important though is that they all tell their stories from the personal perspective of individuals: and "Heaven's Gate" does this as the person of Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson).
The film is gorgeous to behold (Vilmos Zsigmond was the photographer) but one big scene bears mentioning: the scene shot in the huge dance hall (actually called Heaven's Gate) in which the entire town is in attendance, everyone roller-skating to fiddle music, several cameras swirling around with the involving, so dynamic as to take your breath away. On the other side of the coin the scene with Ella (a young, fresh-faced Isabelle Huppert) and Nate Champion (a rouged and mascara'd, Christopher Walken) in Nate's digs couldn't be sweeter: innocent and personal...Nate brushing off bread crumbs and straightening Ella's place setting on the table, Ella, nervous and unforgettable.
All of the acting is first-rate but Walken, I think steals the movie with his quirky portrayal of a somewhat fey, yet obnoxiously macho, Nate. In one particular scene, Nate senses that Jim is back in town and tells Ella: "I can feel when he is around." In another scene, Nate sneaks into Jim's room and watches a sleeping Jim with, for want of a better word, Desire in his eyes. Nate also picks up and rubs Jim's boot lovingly: interesting, distinctive stuff especially in the context of this great big, masculine film.
Isabelle Huppert is also a standout as a Madam, torn between her love for both Jim and Nate and as such is the catalyst for the jealousy and fire in the scenes between Walken and Kristofferson.
At the very least, this version of "Heaven's Gate" will stand the test of time as a personal and loving statement to a period in America when we began to lose our way and our innocence to boot. At the very most, this version will survive as a testament to how wrong a lot of people can be about a film's worth and importance. If you are a fan of American Films, you owe it to yourself to check out this beautiful, resonant, complex and resoundingly heartfelt movie.
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on August 30, 2005
1980 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the strangest media events ever. There was an eagerly-awaited invitational preview on a Thursday for a four hour Michael Cimino western called HEAVEN'S GATE. The whole industry came out in force to see Cimino's first movie since his Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and, at a budget of $40 million, a movie that had bankrupt United Artists. The result was apparently an unholy disaster-so awful that Friday opening day regular engagements were abruptly cancelled. Reviews were venomous, focusing much more on the hefty budget and how an arrogant auteur filmmaker had brought down a studio with his excesses. Roger Ebert was particularly hostile. The 219 minute movie was sent back to the editing room with Cimino and several original editors. In mid-1981, an all-new HEAVEN'S GATE was brought out at only 149 minutes. The same hostile reviewers, except for Kevin Thomas in THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, still hated the movie for being too long and not having a coherent story. I saw that shortned print, adored the movie, and sent a rave review to Mr. Cimino. I got a very positive thank you letter from the filmmaker himself saying it was a hit in France. In America, I think the 149 minute print played for only two weeks in deserted theaters. Just for good luck, animal rights groups who had not seen the movie in any form were protesting the mistreatment of horses in the film.

Thank God for home video! While heavily censored TV prints of HEAVEN'S GATE still run 149 minutes, the uncut 219 minute roadshow version (which importantly never got a theatrical run for the general public) is available on letterboxed videocassette and DVD. Let us wish it a Happy 25th Birthday, forget all budget problems, and just evaluate what is up on the screen for 219 minutes.

According to writer/director Cimino, the Johnson County War took place in 1892 Casper, Wyoming. It was a battle waged between Eastern European immigrants and American cattlemen. The cattlemen, led by a despicable villain named Canton (Sam Waterston at his nastiest), claimed that the immigrants were stealing cattle and land in exchange for sexual favors in a local whorehouse run by Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). Acting under authority of the President and Federal Government, Canton and his Cattlemen's Association came up with a death list with 125 immigrant names on it, including Ella. The movie's central protagonist is marshall Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson in the performance of his career), who is in love with Ella. So is a bounty hunter named Nate Campion (Christopher Walken). How can the critics say there is no story here?! There is a passionate and romantic love triangle wrapped inside a powerful western conflict. As God is my witness, the uncut HEAVEN'S GATE is my favorite western of the last 25 years-yes, including Best Picture Oscar winners UNFORGIVEN (1992) and DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), which are admittedly very good adult westerns also.

I have no idea what HEAVEN'S alleged $40 million budget would be in 2005 dollars. Probably $80 million, which is hefty, but not unreasonable for a four hour period western meticulously shot on location on magnificent Idaho and Montana locations. An entire frontier town (Casper?) was built in Kalispell, Montana. A working antique train was brought to the location. Nothing was too good for the genius who had won Oscars for THE DEER HUNTER only two years before. The movie's art direction got a 1981 Oscar nomination. The dusty sepia Panavision photography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, captures the look of antique photos. There were horse wranglers for dozens of horses, dance and skating instructors (for an exquisite extended "Blue Danube Waltz" at Harvard at the beginning and a memorable roller skating scene in the film's middle). David Mansfield's fiddle and mandolin score is unforgettably beautiful and haunting throughout, especially when "The Blue Danube Waltz" becomes a slow motion dirge during the latter battle scenes. The climactic battle is violent and seems to go on as long as the real 1892 cattlemen/immigrants battle. It is a horrible and beautiful sustained sequence--maybe lasting an hour of screen time--that is severely shortened in the cut TV print. This is one gorgeous piece of filmmaking by a master who admittedly let the movie get away from him. It IS too long and IS too pessimistic. But at least you can see where the money went. It is a true labor of love movie that, ironically, may be Cimino's finest films. I don't think it is quite as great as THE DEER HUNTER, but certainly it is better than Cimino's modestly budgeted subsequent films.

(PLOT SPOILERS-BEWARE!) It is impossible to discuss why I love the uncut HEAVEN'S GATE so much without discussing the 20 minute Prologue and five minute Epilogue. So many critics call these scenes extraneous and confused, but they are the very heart of the movie for me. The Prologue takes place at 1870 Harvard with Jim Averill as a young student in love with a young woman he is frustratingly too shy to talk to; they exchange smiles. Averill is haunted by this beautiful young woman all his life, as I am by a married young woman I loved at UCLA long ago and cannot get out of my mind. Joseph Cotten has a cameo as a head professor, and John Hurt is the class orator. Look at the end credits. Writer Cimino really did his homework-these are real speeches being spoken. And the dance on Harvard lawn, a lengthy and enthralling "Blue Danube Waltz", may be one of the American cinema's loveliest set pieces. Shockingly, it is sometimes cut for time on TV showings, instead of the overlong battle much later.

The Epilogue is the key to the whole movie for me. Study it. (PLOT SPOILER ALERT!) It is 1903, and Jim Averill is the sole survivor of the bloody Johnson County War. I won't tell you how or where Nate and Ella die. We are on a yacht off Newport, Rhode Island at sunset. Averill is below deck with a young woman. He has finally married at least a surrogate for the girl of his dreams from Harvard long ago and is still deeply unhappy. He lights a cigarette for his presumed wife, while staring off into space, lost in his dreams of the past. He walks back up on deck for one of the most beautiful final shots in the American cinema of the 1980's. (Beware of an old VHS tape version that omits this final scene and freezes on Jim below deck!) And Mansfield's music, as always, is incomparable.

So, the majestic and magnificent HEAVEN'S GATE, in its uncut 219 minute form at least, is a portrait of the entire lifetime of Jim Averill, from Harvard youth in 1870, to Wyoming marshall in 1892, to a lonely middle aged intellectual man in 1903 with all of his friends dead or long gone. It is so haunting, and Mansfield's exquisite music plus Zsigmond's sepia-tinted Panavision photography, again make it a truly special motion picture if you have a whole evening viewing slot. (There is an intermission on the letterboxed VHS copy I am reviewing.) Happy 25th Birthday, HEAVEN'S GATE!

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on August 21, 2012
There is so much to love in this movie. First the male leads: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and John Hurst (all at their peak) and the conflicted admiration and respect they have for each other. Add to those, Sam Waterston, as the cattle baron who despises the immigrates because they are poor and butcher a steer or two to feed their starving families, and Jeff Bridges the inn keeper, another friend of Kristofferson's James Averill.

Consider the grandeur of the film, which begins with Averill 's attendance of a graduation speech given my Joseph Cotton, Harvard Dean. It took me several viewings to notice that his speech presents the central theme of the movie (idealism and the taming of the lawless West, because Cimino purposely distracts the viewer with cuts to the antics of John Hurst who makes fun of the seriousness of the speech. This is followed by a scene of the graduation dance comprised of scores of extras in nineteenth-century suits and gowns waltzing in Harvard Yard (actually Oxford), which ends with a riotous free for all as the men beat each other as they scramble for the ladies bouquets atop a tree in the year. The theme of beauty vs. violence, which also underlies the movie.

And there is much spectacle to come: poor immigrants perched atop empty train cars as the locomotive steam engulfs them as it trails backward.

Then there is the greatest set piece in the movie, the roller skating rink where the immigrants circle while a Cajun band plays, ending with a solo waltz for James
Averill and Ella Watson, the town Madam played by the young and gorgeous Isabelle Huppert.

All the while, a gang of bounty hunters hired and armed by the cattlemen is on its way with a list of immigrants, including Emma and most of the townspeople, to be shot on sight.

I know why this movie didn't find an audience. It's dark, sad, political in the deepest sense, and has no happy ending.

SPOILER ALERT THIS PARAGRAPH. In fact it has three unhappy endings, one after the other.

But for its splendid characterizations, the beauty and texture of the cinematography, the beautiful soundtrack (including Russian and Slavic folk songs), the costume design, and a unique portrayal of the settling of the West, this film has its qualities.

I've been waiting for this on blu-ray for years.
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on March 7, 1999
Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt (not William), Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Hubbert gave their best performances ever in "Heaven's Gate" -- the film that was turned into a punch line by film critics and their wanna-be successors.
I just saw the unedited version at a special screening in New York City and it was amazing. The film is complex: Director/writer Michael Cimino presents shades of gray when examining the violent class and "ethnic" conflicts that take place between wealthy cattle barons and poor immigrant settlers that sought a better way of life in America.
One moment I sided with the cattle barons. The other moment I sided with the immigrants. What Cimino did was present both sides of the issue, showing the fundamental reason why these class conflicts will always exist.
The film forces you to deal with your own predjudices and explore the behaviors that arise when you are forced to survive.
If "Heaven's Gate" had been released today it would have won Best Picture, Cimino would have won Best Director, Kristofferson would have won Best Actor, and Walken would have won Best Supporting Actor.
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on November 28, 1999
Like another of the reviewers on this service, I was in the audience during the opening week of Heaven's Gate in Manhattan. When I read in the newspapers a week or so later that it had been panned and was considered a "disaster," I was puzzled. I still am. The most puzzling comment of all that I have heard through the years is that the film is "incomprehensible," or "has no plot." I have no earthly idea why anyone would say that. Is it because we have become so used to short films that don't require us to think? The film's plot is very simple and very easy to follow. I don't know how anyone could be confused by it.
I'm also puzzled by negative comments about the acting. I had always loved Kristofferson's music, but until this film I felt that he was a lazy actor. Heaven's Gate made me a fan. The final expression on his face, frozen in pain, is exquisite. Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, Geoffrey Lewis, and Richard Masur are superb.
This film is a perfect comment on the Reagan years in American politics, although it was released only a month after his election. The idea of government troops swooping down on the side of big money has never been portrayed better. To those who have never seen the film, or those who inisist that it has no plot, I recommend that you rid your minds of all prejudice, and become ready to watch a film that will challenge the mores of American society.
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on February 11, 2002
It's always 1 or 5 (the occasional 2 or 4 are just cowards...). This is a film you either adore or detest. Those who adore it (moi, for instance, as the 5 star rating clearly indicates) are usually very patient movie watchers who like to watch a film unfold at its own pace. How many films can you name that are still going through exposition an hour and half into the film?
David Bern once said that movies are nothing but pictures and images; stories are just a trick to get you to watch them. You could turn off the sound and mix up the reels (some probably think that happened when they saw it in the theatre), and this would still be a feast for the eyes. Cimino's lush vision of Montana is overwhelming. It's like a stroll through a moving Bierstadt exhibition. It contains pieces that are almost perfect acts of filmmaking - such as the skating sequence, which could stand alone as a short (the 1 star folks just stopped reading, muttering the word "dilatant" under their collective breaths).
But despite its cinematic saturation, Heaven's Gate has a powerful, complex story. It's a story about class barbarism, and how the American Aristocracy of the last century committed mass murder in the West, with the help of the Government and the Military. It has a love story between two people who wouldn't have touched each other in the "civilized" East. It has intense performances by Isabella Hupert, Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Sam Waterston, et al.
Yes, this is clearly not a film for everyone - in fact, if it was made for anyone, it was for Michael Cimino - but it is a film that some of us are glad was made. If you like LONG, CHALLANGING films by self-indulgent artists, rent it - and if you love it, you'll have to buy it; and if you hate it, well, you probably wasted five bucks and couldn't even get to the second tape...
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on December 22, 2002
Cimino may not have made a blockbuster, but he did make one of the best Westerns in cinematic history. Unfortunately, most people can't sit through a 4-hour movie. If you are one of those persons who can appreciate a complex narrative, delivered by a stunning cast, that tells a more candid tale of the West, then "Heaven's Gate" is a real treat.
Cimino has collected a set of compelling stories that swirl around the range wars of the Montana. He relates these stories through his protaganist, a federal marshall played by Kris Kristofferson. His thoughts drift back to Harvard Yard in the opening sequence, where he reveled in the commencement ceremonies with his old schoolmate, John Hurt. Much of this scene was chopped out in the theatrical release, undermining the content of the film. It is this Eastern view, which Cimino wants you to take note of. How one can meld into the West as Kristofferson does, and how one can become part and parcel of the cattle syndicate as Hurt did.
The stories mainly focus around the Eastern European immigrants who attempted to carve out a life in late 19th-century Montana. They came up against the great cattle syndicates, who owned much of the range, leaving little for the immigrants to settle on. Cimino gives you a very intimate view of the events. His camera angles take you right into the action. This is a very visceral movie.
Eventually these immigrants come up against the cattle barons, who had formed their own vigilante gangs in an attempt to combat the encroachment of the new settlers on their land. Kristofferson has grown close to the immigrants and eventually chooses to support their claims, leading to a final gut-wrenching confrontation, which includes his old schoolmate, John Hurt.
The cast is first rate. Walken, Bridges, Huppert, Watterston all give excellent performances. Cimino has inverted many of the myths that surround the Old West, and provided a living history. The film almost has the quality of a sepia tone, as he has muted his colors to give the sense of age. The [fourty]... million budget seems paltry by toda's standards, but at the time it was one of the most expensive films ever made. Unfortunately, not everyone was ready for it.
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Based on what occurred during Johnson County War of 1892 (although it is hardly factual), "Heaven's Gate" features stunning photography and strong performances. When the film was initially released it bankrupt United Artists going over budget and failing to recoup its cost and faced nasty critical barbs which seemed directed more at director Cimino (and the fact that the film went over budget) and the disappointed expectations of critics rather than the film itself.

While "Heaven's Gate" IS flawed (in my opinion the second act could have been trimmed as the momentum achieved during the first act comes to a glacial crawl), it truly remains a visionary western influenced as much by European film directors like Visconti or David Lean (the critical reaction to "Heaven's Gate" in Europe remained positive and that's where the film gained stature initially over the years)as John Ford with elements of Ford's westerns thrown in for good measure.

Kris Kristofferson plays a sheriff James Averill who was born into wealth but seeks justice for the immigrants that are settling in Wyoming. The immigrants are being forced from their land by wealthy cattle barons led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston in a deliciously evil portrayal) and enforced by Averill's friend Nate Campion (Christopher Walken). Campion is also Averill's rival for the affection of madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). Watson is on Canton's hit list that he and his cronies have put together and Averill must prevent her from being murdered along with over 100 other immigrants in the region.

I should warn you that even when the narrative for "Heaven's Gate" is moving, it has the lanquid pace. If you're expecting a quick action movie, you will be in for a disappointment but, if you are drawn into the universe that Cimino and his director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond have created with their cast and crew, you'll enjoy the movie. The 216 minute cut of the film has a narrative is much clearer than the 149 minute version that was cut for the short lived theatrical distribution of the film back in 1980.

Criterion has done a superb job of restoring Cimino's original 216 minute cut of the film. Unfortunately, the original negative was cut and the trims discarded so Criterion had to work with the YCM color separations for the film. Usually transfers are done from interpositives but, as the original intact 216 minute negative no longer exists, it's not possible to strike a new interpositive from the negative for this version.In spite of this problem, Criterion has managed to assemble a terrific looking version of the film. There are some flaws evidence due to the source but these are relatively minor flaws.

The 5.1 mix isn't quite as immersive as a contemporary mix but it sounds quite good.

The special features are top notch as well although I do wish that Criterion had included the documentary made on the problems surrounding the film. Those problems aren't really addressed in depth anywhere in the special features on the disc but they are acknowledged and addressed (to a degree) in the extension booklet with the essay by Giulia D'Agnolo. We also get a 1980 interview with Cimino that discusses the technical challenges of making the film.

The second disc features all the special features. We get a new illustrated audio interview with director Cimino and the producer of the film Joann Carelli. There are also new and in depth interviews with Kristofferson, music arranger (and performer) David Mansfield (who also appears in the film) and comments from the assistant director Michael Stevenson.

Finally the special features are rounded out with a restoration demonstration, the teaser and theatrical trailer for the film.

Brutally attacked when it was released back in 1980, time has restored luster to the film removing the circumstances of the difficult birth of "Heaven's Gate". While the production cost over runs, difficult egos and expectations of the film cost the studio that financed it, damaged the career of director Cimino and its reception when released, this Blu-ray allows a critical reassessment which is much deserved. Be aware, however, that "Heaven's Gate" isn't a fast paced revisionist western like "Unforgiven" or Leone's 1960's films.

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on November 3, 2002
It is difficult to watch Heaven's Gate without being fully aware of the film's history. It was the film that brought down a studio; it is the worst film ever made; it was a film made by an egomaniac director completely out of control; it is a complete and incoherent mess. And, as with many film legends, many of these claims are made by people who have never seen it. So, whenever one sits down to watch this 3 hour 40 minute epic, you cannot help but view the film through these prisms.
The current version of the film available on VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD claims to be Cimino's original cut of the film, though that is hard to prove given that the 3+ hour version was never officially released. Studio heads panicked and yanked that version several days before the opening, demanding Cimino recut it to a shorter length. Apparently, this version available on video was "found" by the studio and released because of the enormous curiosity and history of the production. There has been no formal declaration that this version IS the final cut that Cimino had planned to release.
Is the film as bad as everyone says? The film that is available on video does has its problems. The audio mix is atrocious with much of the dialogue being lost in the mix of ambient sound. The opening sequence, though well executed, is totally unnecessary. The pacing of the first 40 minutes is slow, confusing, and a mishmash of scenes that the viewer is left to figure out its importance and meaning. The lead actor and the film's anchor, Kris Kristoferson, turns in a boring, leaden, one-note performance that further hampers the film.
But the film also has much going for it. The cinematography, always singled out as a highlight, is truly astonishing. Combined with the meticulous and accurate production work of the sets and costumes, the film has the unmistakable look and feel of being shot in the late 1890's. It has a compelling storyline that deals with the issue of immigration in a fresh and controversial way. The performances of the actors, in particular Hubert and Waterston, are excellent and go a long way in compensating for several weakly scripted scenes. And the music of David Mansfield is note-perfect. So when these elements are combined--as they are many times throughout--the film is very impressive, engaging, and shows enormous promise.
Where the film truly suffers is in the editing. I saw the original 2 1/2 version several times during its release, though it was not much better overall (it felt too short!), the storyline was clearer and there were a couple of expository moments that this version lacks. One could easily trim down the first hour to an improved, clearer, and better paced 30 minutes. It is the lack of structure that really injures this version. One almost gets the sense that the film is still in its rough-cut stage and is about 2 - 3 versions away from a finished product.
The DVD release is a huge disappointment. The master is taken from the laserdisc version and suffers an enormous loss of clarity. Because of this, viewers are only given a letterboxed version and not the preferred 16x9 presentation that this widescreen presentation deserves. The audio, though stating it is 5.1, is bland and muddled and demonstrates no delineation between front and rear. What is even more frustrating is that many of the Polish scenes lack proper subtitles, so the viewer has no idea what is being spoken. (There is no English subtitle track either.)
It is difficult to recommend this film to family or friends as you will never know what will be the reaction. If you are patient and understand that this is not a final version, then you are more forgiving of its faults and can enjoy many of its excellent moments. On the other hand, if you are expecting to see the Worst Film Ever Made, you have much that will prove that theory. It all depends from which prism you choose to view the film.
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on November 22, 2012
Yesterday was the first time I had ever seen Michael Cinimo's infamous film "Heaven's Gate", watching it on the newly released Criterion Blu-ray. Before buying it, I read countless reviews complaining that the movie's image quality was too faded, too washed out, too sepia-toned. (Famed critic Roger Ebert described the look of the film as "so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen." He went on to say, "A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.")

Well, if that was the case before, it certainly isn't now. Everything on screen is sharp and crystal clear. The colors are rich and vibrant. If there wasn't indisputable proof that the film I watched and the film reviewers criticized for its bad picture were one and the same, I would never have believed it. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is lush and dazzlingly gorgeous, making almost every shot look like a great painting. Far from being unable to enjoy "the primary act of looking at [the] picture", as Ebert put it, I wanted to savor and drink in as much of its beauty as possible.

The sound quality, however, is very poor in some places. Dialogue can be drowned out by background noise, like when characters are in a busy street. Apparently, it was always like that. It isn't a distraction through the whole film; in fact it only seems to happen in a few scenes. But some of those scenes are near the beginning and are crucial to hear in order to understand what is to follow. Keep the subtitles handy.

The film itself, I think, is underrated. It has flaws, the most evident of which is its slow start. (Be warned if you haven't seen it: The film takes a LONG time to pick up steam.) But it has merits that some of its harsher critics turn a blind eye to. Along with the magnificent cinematography, "Heaven's Gate" has a haunting score that creeps its way into your soul. It has characters I found to be compelling, played by actors who range from competent to truly brilliant. Kris Kristofferson suits the role of the burned-out, world-weary sheriff with lost roots in wealth and privilege. Christopher Walken is perfect as a hired gun working in the interest of ruthless cattle barons: When you see him commit murder in his first scene, you think he's going to be this immense antagonist. As the film unfolds, you realize he's more than some villain. One of the best things about "Heaven's Gate" is the way it gives Walken's character so much depth, allowing his inner contradictions and emotions to gradually emerge. Also, I thought Isabelle Huppert did a great job as the bordello madam who is the object of both these men's affection. She brought energy, liveliness, and vivacity to the role. I cared about her character and what might happen to her.

Oh, and John Hurt is awesome as always. His part is small, but he steals just about every scene he is in.

This is a beautiful Blu-ray release of a very divisive film. If you are going to experience "Heaven's Gate", this is the best way to do so. Give it a chance. You may like it. You may hate it. At any rate, the film has its place in cinema history and should prove an interesting experience for you.
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