The film is a very sad one dealing with parents losing a child, the other sibling attempting suicide for survivor's guilt, and how the family has to deal with all of this. Staring Mary Tyler Moore in a strong dramatic role that was a far leap from her bubbly television characters from the 60's and 70's which earned her only Oscar nomination. Also staring Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, who won Best Supporting Actor and beat out fellow cast member Judd Hirsch.
The movie is about trying to come to terms with tragedy and how it can break up family and relationships with each person dealing with grief in their own ways. Timothy Hutton plays a young man who survives a boating accident where his older brother doesn't. Struck by grief of survivors guilt and from coldness from his mother who seems to love the older child more, he attempts suicide. The film starts with him going back to school and seeing a psychiatrist played by Judd Hirsch. Donald Sutherland is trying to keep the family together and is sympathetic to his son's grief, eventually loses patience with Mary Tyler Moore who is trying to get things back to normal.
Very well acted and a strong and powerful film that is done perfectly. Not that I don't respect and realize how great of a movie this is, I am aggravated that it had to come out the same year as Raging Bull! Raging Bull is one of the greatest movies ever made, a classic, the most amazing fight scenes, great acting, directing, another perfect movie. If it came out a year later or a year earlier it would have won Best Picture. I aggravate over things like this, and consequently I don't sleep well at night either, because it figures that two of the best films at the end of this era had to come out at the same time.
Anyway, this is a great film and even though it was the Best Picture of 1980, it is a 1970's style of drama and should not be confused with a lot of the junk that came out later in the decade.
The reason why I call it the end of an era is that Heaven's Gate is considered the end of the time where the director could do whatever they want and the studio let it happen. Eventually you will get a film that runs over budget with elaborate sets, overruns, endless retakes and the studio heads put a stop to it. They had also begun to get a taste of the blockbuster and cross promotion and realized that this is better than making an epic western about cattle barons going to war with cattle thieves in 1890's Wyoming. As a result you started to see less movies like Ordinary People or Raging Bull being made and more movies like Ghostbusters, E.T., and Back to the Future. This is why the 1980's was a dark time for Hollywood and there are very few good movies from that decade.
By the way, Heaven's Gate is a great movie and you should watch the uncut three and a half hour version. And don't forget Ordinary People, see that too. And add Raging Bull if you haven't already, another classic.