It is about pet cemeteries. Specifically, the first part concerns one Floyd McClure, a man with a deep feeling for animals who hit upon the idea of a pet cemetery business. Floyd and his business partners pick out a spot of land and start their business. Floyd's earnestness about the bond between humans and their pets and the need to provide humane burials for pets is contrasted with his opposite number, the manager of a rendering plant.
Unfortunately for Floyd and his partners their Foothill Pet Cemetery in Los Altos, CA, went under. 450 dead pets were dug up from Foothill and were re-interred in a new location, the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa, CA. The second and longer portion of Morris' film is a portrait of Bubbling Well and the family who run it: patriarch Cal Harberts, his wife Scottie, and their sons Dan and Phil. Cal and Scottie talk about their belief that heaven is a place that admits family pets as well as people, while their sons express more mundane concerns about running a pet cemetery business.
Errol Morris's debut feature and the one that made his name in the art-house film world. Werner Herzog, who knew Morris in Morris's student film days, said he'd eat his shoe if Morris could get a film on such an odd subject produced and distributed. The resulting 1980 documentary short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is included as DVD Bonus Content on The Criterion Collection's release of Gates of Heaven.
Bubbling Well is still in business, although—as Roger Ebert noted in his rave review of this film—its website makes no mention of Gates of Heaven. (The cemetery, now run by David Harberts,note was severely damaged in a 2017 wildfire.)
Not to be confused with Heaven's Gate.
- Black Comedy: Although Morris refrains from overtly mocking the people he interviews, there's a fair amount of black comedy in the movie. The rendering plant guy says that he deals with zoos that need to get rid of large animals but he keeps it secret because the zoos don't want to admit what they do with dead elephants. In another scene an emotional woman pet owner goes on a long talk about responsibility to your pets that ends with her saying "that is the time to have them—", and her husband jumps in with "Neutered."
- Blinding Bangs: One couple shows a photo of their dog with his Blinding Bangs and remark that somehow he could still see where he was going.
- Children Are a Waste: The viewpoint of Florence Rasmussen, whose rambling monologue provides the break between the first and second parts, and who now regrets raising her grandson from a two-year-old. (She wants the $1200 she gave him for a car back.)
- Creepy Cemetery: Your Mileage May Vary on how creepy is a pet cemetery filled with headstones dedicated to dogs and cats, as well as decorative statues of fake deer and swans and the like. Stephen King obviously found the whole concept pretty creepy.
- Due to the Dead: One of the main concerns, specifically how much due should be given to dead household pets.
- Emotions vs. Stoicism: A theme of the first part of the film when Floyd McClure's tender feelings towards animals both living and dead are contrasted with the stoic, slightly weary manager of the rendering plant. The normally avuncular Floyd grows positively enraged when he talks about how the corpses of animals are mangled and processed into tallow and the like. The rendering manager says that he makes a useful product and renders a useful service, especially when you have a horse die on the weekend and it's 102 degrees outside.
- The Ken Burns Effect: Used only once, when Phillip Harberts points to a framed photo of William James, and the camera pans over the photo while Harberts recites a James quote: "Emotions are not always subject to reason but they are always subject to action."
- Montage: Towards the end there's a prolonged montage of various deeply emotional pet tombstones at Bubbling Well.
- The Oner: Florence Rasmussen's rambling aimless monologue that goes from pets to her ungrateful grandson is presented in a four-minute uninterrupted take from a stationary camera. (Then after an insert she rambles for another minute and a half.)
- Spinning Paper: A couple of static shots of headlines regarding the disinterring of pets, then a classic Spinning Paper shot of a headline stating "450 dead pets" were being moved to a cemetery in the Napa Valley.
- Talking Heads: Lots, as most of the movie consists of interviews of the people involved.
- Title Drop: Scottie Harberts talks about her belief that when one gets to the "gates of heaven", they won't keep the four-legged souls out.
- Two-Act Structure: The first part being the construction and collapse of Floyd McClure's pet cemetery, and the second part being Bubbling Well and the Harberts family, with Florence Rasmussen's monologue as a break.