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Cimino's masterpiece finally finds its audience,
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This review is from: Heaven's Gate Restored Edition 2 Discs [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
Let me start by saying that Heaven's Gate is a marvellous film, and in no way deserving of the critical mauling it got on its release. Director Michael Cimino was criticised for bloating the Johnson County War, a relatively minor albeit brutal footnote in American history, into a three-hour-plus behemoth, but to do so is to miss what Cimino was trying to achieve. The film plays out as a requiem to the American frontier, and a paean to the visceral beauty of the West. The huge budget and Cimino's attention to detail are up there on the screen, and it looks wonderful. As with all great films, it isn't so much the events depicted that draw us in as the journey we're taken on to get there.
Having read the reviews I was fearing there would be precious little plot amongst the cinematic eye-candy, but this is not the case at all. This is one of the most absorbing movies I have seen. Cimino takes his time setting up the story, and the slow-burning Kristofferson-Walken-Huppert love triangle serves to heighten the tension and sense of dread leading up to the climactic battle sequence. Leading man Kris Kristofferson turns in a quiet but mesmerising performance as marshall Jim Averill, backed up by a solid supporting cast. At three and a half hours running time, Heaven's Gate is a long and nuanced film that audiences at the time - at least in the US - were perhaps not ready for. It's no surprise that the film was warmly received in Europe, as its unconventional narrative structure and slow pacing had far more in common with the French New Wave than other Hollywood fare of the time.
On to the UK blu-ray release from Second Sight. This is the sort of film that the format was made for. DP Vilmos Zsigmond's widescreen panoramas look fantastic, with saturated blue skies and green fields. The HD transfer, whilst sharp and detailed, does show up the limitations of the source material, with grain and occasional scratches and sparklies present. Some sequences show reduced contrast and blooming of light areas into dark, as if they were shot with a soft-focus lens - the opening scenes at Harvard are a good case in point - but I assume this was intentional. For audio we get a choice of stereo PCM and DTS-MA 5.1. I watched with the 5.1 option selected (the disc defaults to the stereo track), and whilst it's not the most dynamic track around given the age of the film, it does a good job of balancing dialogue with background effects and music cues. Most of the action does come from the front and centre speakers - the rears could have been utilised to better effect on some of the busy outdoor scenes. HG has been criticised for having a muffled soundtrack and dialogue, and this is another reason why the film works so much better today. With the benefit of a decent surround system I was able to follow characters speaking over the loud background noise present in a few scenes - Caspar, Wyoming being a good example - but it's easy to see that cinema audio circa 1980 would have struggled to separate dialogue from the prominent background mix.
The Second Sight release comes with a DVD of bonus features, the most interesting of which is the "Final Cut" documentary detailing the film's disastrous debut and the resulting fallout on the Hollywood film industry. A few years later, studios were churning out high-concept audience-pleasing hits such as Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, and producers - not directors - wielded creative control. I'll leave you to decide whether this is a good or bad thing.
One final observation - the UK version of the film has a couple of small cuts for animal cruelty scenes, amounting to about a minute of running time, but in my opinion this does not spoil the film in any way.
Overall this is a must-have blu-ray - it's great to see this most misunderstood classic of American cinema get the treatment it deserves on a Region B disc. (The US market has the Criterion Collection release, but it's expensive and as with all Criterion discs is locked to Region A.)