Ostensibly a documentary on pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven actually uses the cultural practice of burying one’s pet as an excuse to conduct a series of subtly revealing interviews with a loosely connected group of people. This isn’t really about the way we deal with dead pets or even pet ownership in general, though it touches on those things. Gates of Heaven is about what reflecting on these topics brings out in the men and women onscreen.
Consider Floyd McClure, a quiet bulk of a man who reveals unexpected depths of empathy as he talks about the border collie he lost years ago when it was hit by a car. He designed a burial plot on his property, and years later embarked on a real estate venture to establish such a place for the public. “This is going to be my project of life,” he says.
Danny and Philip Harberts, whose family owns another pet cemetery called Bubbling Wells, aren’t quite so inspired. Both brothers have returned to the family business after failing to find success elsewhere. They parrot their father’s talk about the nobility of the enterprise, but you don’t believe it, especially when one of them says he doesn’t like to think about all the carcasses under the ground, with all the moisture and bugs: “It’s another world down there you know.”
When Morris’ subjects are sharing their stories, they’re given plenty of time to roam.
We meet others, including some gruffly poetic pet owners. None of them seem to be chosen, however, because they might serve as building blocks for a larger theme. Instead, they seem to have been picked for what they might reveal of themselves. Errol Morris, the director and editor, employs a straightforward technique that’s designed to put his subjects front and center. In most cases, that’s exactly where he places them within the frame, surrounded by personalizing knickknacks. The nearly square aspect ratio also provides a sense of containment. What you see (and hear) is presumably what you get.
Of course, this isn’t to say Morris is not active behind the scenes. In his editing especially, he creates wry juxtapositions that carry you from one character to the next. Yet none of these instances feel designed to trap the people he’s interviewing or present them amusingly out of context. What’s more, when Morris’ subjects are sharing their stories, they’re given plenty of time to roam. These are long monologues, not “gotcha” sound bites, and the result is a documentary that feels, above all else, generous. If it’s possible to watch a woman “sing” with her dog and not smirk, Gates of Heaven manages it.