Heaven's Gate is not, as its reputation suggests, the worst Hollywood movie ever made. Looked at in a certain light it even has some brilliance to it, and at stray moments you can even forget that Michael Cimino's film is now a three-and-a-half-hour metaphor for the hubris of ego and the dangers of not watching your budget. (Heaven's Gate had an original budget of $7.5 million, eventually cost a whopping $44 million, took in less than $2 million at the box office, financially kneecapped United Artists, and scotched Cimino's career as a director. The gory details, wonderfully told, are all in the book Final Cut, written by then-UA production exec Steven Bach.) Strip away the behind-the-scenes story, and Heaven's Gate is an enigma, as difficult to like as it is to dismiss. It is arrogant and it is beautiful. It is thematically clever and rhetorically dull. It is sensitive and it is condescending. It has enormous ambition and winds up with nothing to say. Eventually, it's just sadly exhausting.
One thing's for certain: Kris Kristofferson is blameless. A solid if not terribly nuanced actor, he plays James Averill, an upstanding marshal who arrives Johnson County, Wyoming to investigate rumors of turmoil there. It's worse than he imagines; as the station agent explains when Averill arrives, Johnson County (not Cimino) has become "the asshole of creation," thanks to ongoing bloodshed between wealthy WASP landowners and the immigrant settlers who try to work their small parcels of land. The landowners are led by the obscenely amoral Frank Canton (Sam Waterston, razor-sharp), who draws up a "death list" of 125 Johnson County residents who are legally approved to be killed under false accusations of thievery.
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