The film has two story lines: the larger is the conflict between powerful Wyoming cattle ranchers and the poor Eastern European immigrants who are spilling onto grazing land, and the smaller is the love triangle involving a brothel madam (Isabelle Huppert) and her two lovers, the local lawman named Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and the enforcer for the cattlemen named Champion (Christopher Walken).
The film’s structure is in three parts: a main narrative set over a short period of time in Wyoming bookended by a long 20 minute prologue of the Harvard class of 1870’s graduation ceremonies and a short epilogue set back east in Newport. The main character is Averill, one of the Harvard graduates who years later is the county lawman duty-bound to protect the immigrants but who seems at times wearily resigned to the inevitability of their oppression by the powerful and violence-prone ranchers. Billy (John Hurt), classmate and friend of Averill, speaks at the graduation ceremony and concludes that society is “well arranged”, contravening the main graduation speaker who encouraged the men to make the world a better place. Twenty years later they both are out West, where society is definitely not “well arranged”, although Averill is trying to make it more so.
The film has problems, to be sure. The uneven narrative meanders, lingering here and there with poignant “slice of life” segments such as a rousing roller skating scene and the graduation segment. Poor sound quality and mumbled dialog (this could almost be an Altman movie) makes the narrative frustratingly hard to decipher in places. Nevertheless, the movie is captivating, surprisingly so since the plot in many ways is so mundane. It’s beautifully filmed in many parts, especially those showing the hardscrabble lives of the immigrant poor, their perseverance and resilience in the face of great hardship, and their exuberance and emotionalism as well. Perhaps the movie works best as a collection of slice-of-life portraits, which somehow taken together amount to more than the whole.
“Heaven’s Gate”, incidentally, is the name of the roller skating rink in the immigrant-dominated town of Sweetwater which proudly proclaims in writing to offer a “moral and exhilarating experience”. The film reminds me of another revisionist Western with a story similarly of growing intensity, explosive violence, and haunting music -- Sergio Leone’s 1968 film Once Upon a Time in the West, which itself incorporated many references to earlier Westerns and whose story revolves around a railroad baron’s ruthless ways which eventually lead to his ruin at a crucial piece of land named, perhaps only coincidentally, Sweetwater.