Friday, January 16, 2015

Class War

Heaven's Gate (1980) - Cimino
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Here is the basic plot: James (Kris Kristofferson), a Havard graduate law man, joins the frontiers of Wyoming in 1890 as a hired sheriff in the town of Casper, Johnson County. He goes head to head with the Cattle Rancher's Association, the Freemason like, all powerful group, comprised of the New England elites poised to stop the flood immigrants (mostly Eastern European hodge-podge) moving in to the New Territory. They put out an illegal warrant to kill 125 'thieves and anarchists' among these relative newcomers. James is involved with the French madam of the whore house, Ella (Isabelle Huppert), but her heart belongs to working class muscleman hired by the Association, Nate (Christopher Walken). The assault/massacre of Johnson county is impending.

With the majestic Wyoming backdrop (lensed by Vilmos Zsigmond), Cimino tries to paint the ruthless frontier Americana with bold strokes that back then wasn't much different than today. It's an ambitious project, taking on the grand theme of class warfare: the rich aggressively persecuting the poor with violence, in not sharing that piece of American pie. It's a pleasure to see something this epic, with thousands of extras and cast that includes, Kristofferson, Huppert, Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif and Mickey Rourke. But despite all the beautiful visual poetry, the film lacks a narrative pull, mainly because of its unhurried pacing and lack of urgency. It contains perhaps the most lackluster large scale stagecoach-style gun battles even though body count aplenty.

I haven't come across Huppert being this beautiful and magnetic in any other films yet. Playing a woman in love with two men of the opposite spectrum, she is completely arresting whenever she's on screen. Walken is brilliant as always, as a cold, vulnerable, tragic anti-hero. Kristofferson's James, born into privilege, not fitting anywhere, gets away with snarls like- (to Ella) "This is mo yer country than mine!" and falls victim of criticism, "You know what I hate about you James? Even though you are rich, you pretend to be poor." It's his false Eastwoodian sense of righteousness that irritates me as a character.

But Heaven's Gate is from James's point of view: it starts out with extravagant graduation ceremony at Havard, with Billy (John Hurt), a wisecracking valedictorian making jabs at the establishment. The sequence is full of whimsy, excess and unfiltered hope, for they are the future leaders of the still burgeoning country full of possibilities. In the film's end, James reflects on his experiences of the wild west, thinking about all the bloodshed that built this country, on his yacht off Rhode Island. This is how it is- that in America, no one can't escape the position they are born into. Oh, throughout a 3 1/2 hr duration, you really want to shoot Sam Waterston in the face 15 times! He is that evil in this film.

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