Heaven’s Gate: A Film Review
Michael Cimino’s American Western, Heaven’s Gate (1980), is both complex and beautiful. A contemporary Western epic based, in part, on the Johnson County War, the film features a rich cast of characters and stunning cinematography. Heaven’s Gate is a great example of a modern take on the genre. Heaven’s Gate tells the story of James Averill, played by Kris Kristofferson, a Harvard graduate who travels west to Johnson County. Averill becomes a sheriff in the Wyoming county, making efforts to advance and develop the country. But this is the 1890s, and the anarchic Johnson County is in the midst of a war, with the county’s land barons fighting against Eastern European immigrants. Along with the commentary on the social conflict of the Johnson County War, the film captures a romantic love triangle. Ella Watson, a madam played by Isabelle Huppert, is torn between Averill and his friend, Nate Champion, played by Christopher Walken. As McGee notes in FROM SHANE TO KILL BILL, Averill’s attraction to Watson is “attraction to an alternative social identity.” It is easy for one to assume that because Ella does not charge Averill that she prefers him to Champion. But as McGee discusses, “that discrimination between the two men may have more to do with the fact that money is meaningless to Jim, since, by his own admission, he can buy her all the things she wants whenever she wants.” For Watson, money is a “symbolic expression of an emotional commitment.” Since Averill is indifferent about money and wealth, it would mean nothing for him to pay her whatever he has, and therefore would not prove anything about his convictions for her even if he did. On the other hand, Champion places significant value in his money, and therefore by paying Ella, he expresses his true desire for her. Of all the characters in Heaven’s Gate, I was most intrigued by Ella Watson. As McGee notes, she represents “a radical social identity not because of her espousal of a...
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