"Knock-knock-knockin' on Heaven's gate!" Hey, if you're gonna follow Bob Dylan's lead, then proceed with caution when knocking on Heaven's door, or rather, Heaven's gate, because you may go in for a cult film and end up in a cult religion. Don't worry, I can see how you would make the mistake though, not just because of the name similarities, but because although the Heaven's Gate cult, to my knowledge, doesn't sacrifice animals (They believe that the apocalypse will be the justified cleansing of Earth from the universe, and thirty-nine of them offed themselves in order to contact aliens, so they still aren't one of your more relatively sane religious groups), many religious cults do, and I'll be struck down if the makers of this film weren't accused of bleeding horses without pain killers and blowing another one up on camera. Man, forget deer, it sounds like Michael Cimino is more into horse hunting, and is pretty hardcore about it too, though believe me, this film isn't quite as exciting as it sounds, and if you thought that "The Deer Hunter", the film considered by many to be Cimino's masterpiece, was boring as all get-out (I still liked it, but come on, Mike, pick up the pace!), then just wait until you see this film that's over three-and-a-half hours and considered by many to be so boring that people wouldn't go see it when it was only two-and-a-half hours in the theaters. Okay, maybe it's no slower than "The Deer Hunter", though that does still mean that it gets to be way too slow and way too long at over three-and-a-half hours, so one can only imagine what it was like to sit through that behemoth of a five-and-a-half-hour-long workprint cut. Actually, forget y'all, I would like to find out, because I don't have much else going on, yet still don't get enough sleep. No, again, this film isn't that dull, yet make no mistake, as good as this film actually is (Forget you, Razzies), this is still the guy who made "The Deer Hunter", so it can only go so far without hitting a dry spell, and let me tell you, it doesn't really go all that far before falling into that certain flaw.
Now, the film isn't quite like "2001: A Space Odyssey", where it's just meditating on some unnecessary bull for twenty minutes on end (I mean figurative bull, though if this film were to superfluously meditate on any kind of animal, it would probably a horse, as if to say, "You're next"), yet the film suffers from many a long period of too much focus on absolutely nothing, and with not oomph enough oomph in the atmosphere during those "occasions" (I don't know if I should use that word, because occasion insinuates that those moments only come in occasionally), things slow to a disengaging, if not rather boring crawl, even when the thing that the film is meditating upon a distractingly noisy environment that sometimes drowns out the dialogue when people finally get around to talking. Still, when the background noise dies down and dialogue is brought to the forefront, things don't get a whole heck of a lot better, because when the dialogue is really out at the forefront, that people stands alone. I don't know about you guys, but maybe Michael Cimino's taste in sound design is a little bit too good, though by 1980, it still had enough limitations tinning things up (Maybe they should have talked to a certain fellow Italian, because Coppola didn't seem to have that problem too much with "Apocalypse Now" in '79), thus creating a kind of white noise that may leave the dialogue to come in loud and about as clear as it could be in 1980 (Or at least when there's no infernal background noise that's hardly in the background and drowns most everything out), yet still kind of lull along in pitch, with not enough background oomph drowning out said white noise. As if that's not enough kids, Cimino even drags the dialogue piece out, like he does most everything else. Good lord, somebody better find that five-and-a-half hour cut, because I've got to see that sucker, just out of morbid curiosity, because, as I said, this film is much too slow and much too long at 219 minutes, alone, and even when this film does slow down on the slowing down, things are still overdrawn to where things don't neccessarily dull down, though still lose some steam. The final product just comes out as an often kind of dull and thoroughly overdrawn experience that doesn't quite live up to some reasonably promising potential, though there is that one key questions still remaining: Is it really that much of a failure for Cimino? Hey, "The Deer Hunter" seemed to make it out okay, and this film does just the same, maybe being more likely to literally knock you out, rather than figuratively, though through thick and then, I came out the other end (Ha-ha, I slant rhymed) feeling generally rewarded by the film, or if nothing else, the film's style.
Say what you will about the story direction, because lord knows that I will, but the art direction is pretty top-notch, with Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography being breathtaking for its time and still stellar to this day, having a kind of an almost, well, heavenly radiance about it that's not always pronounced all that emphatically, yet when it is, say during a magic hour shot or something along those lines, it really stops you cold with its incredible lighting and color bounce. Not only is the photography good at making this world look pretty, but also making it seem quite grand, having a slickly broadness to its scope that creates an neatly epic feel, yet not at the expense of somewhat engrossing intimacy during your more small-scope moments. What further brings this world to life are the production designs, which aren't terribly unique, as far was western reproductions are concerned, yet remain intricate and lively, with a kind of engaging attention to detail that does help in setting the tone for the era, while Michael Cimino sets the overall tone of the story, though maybe with a tad too much success. Cimino's very meditative take on this film brings the word dreamy to mind, not necessarily because that's the level of dryness we're dealing with, but because the whatever level of dryness we're left facing could very well knock you into a dream, though what Cimino does get right as storyteller is worth powering through the slowness, as he does gather some tension during the harsher moments and pretty good action sequences, as well as some depth during your more dramatic moments. If nothing else, Cimino at least pulls off a charming execution of this story that is perhaps not terribly inventive, yet still compelling in concept and well worth watching in execution, even if things do get to be limp along. The performers seem to reflect the film's tone, with the exception of the dullness, as there are no boring performances, yet there are many charming ones, whether it be a here-and-there Jeff Bridges and John Hurt, or such more major roles as Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken (Wait, Christopher Walken is charming; Well now, who could have seen that coming?) and the lovely Isabelle Huppert... whoever that is. There's plenty of charm and, on occasions, even some depth to spare in this film, and that helps great in keeping you going through all of the slowness, with the other strengths that are listed above adding an extra kick of juice to the final product, to where it ultimately emerges a genuinely good and generally satisfying film, flawed though, it may be.
To close the gates, other rather, this review, the film is often quiet and dry, with little punch to the atmosphere, rendering it periodically dull, a problem worsened by the fact that the film is also relentlessly overdrawn, particularly when it comes to noisy moments of environment meditation and often too talkative dialogue pieces, thus leaving even the scenes that aren't dull to lose steam in quite a few spots and the film to stand as not quite as engrossing as it should be, yet with Vilmos Zsigmond's radiant and sweeping photography direction and nifty production designs catching your eye, as well as Michael Cimino's still often effectively inspired direction and a myriad of charismatic, when not compelling performances catching enough of your investment, "Heaven's Gate" stands as a problematically slow and overlong, yet ultimately worthwhile epic that wins you over by the end.
3/5 - Good