Sunday, March 13, 2011

Review: Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain is a tender, moving and beautifully constructed romantic drama about two men who fall in love over the Summer of 1963 when they work together herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming. Ang Lee's (Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) incredible direction garnered him a Best Director Oscar, while the Adapted Screenplay (from Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain) and Score were also recognized. There was much controversy back in 2005 after Crash took out Best Picture over the hotly favored Brokeback. I had not seen the film at the time of the ceremony, so the fuss was lost to me. But having now experienced this tale, the rejection is nothing short of astounding. Brokeback won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and had won the Best Picture/Director duo at the BAFTA and Golden Globes.

Widely touted throughout the media, and shallowly at that, as the 'gay cowboy movie', Brokeback Mountain is the uplifting but ultimately tragic tale of two human souls who fall in love, don't know how to deal with it, and are forever changed by the experiences they share. Kept apart for decades because of their own individual families and societal prejudice, it is tormenting to watch. Whether they are in fact gay, bisexual or straight (they each are married and have children) it doesn't matter, the story of their bond, and the emotional roller coaster they each take throughout the ensuing twenty years is a stirring spectacle that should forever be considered amongst the finest artistic achievements of the decade. As four of the most promising young actors in the business, Jake Gyllenhaal, the late Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway all give fantastic performances. The three former were all honored with Oscar nominations, but were overlooked. It is tragic to learn of Ledger's fate just years after his incredible performance here.

Ennis Del Mar (Ledger), a ranch hand, and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), a rodeo cowboy, meet when they are hired by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd his sheep through the summer. While the pair start out distant, once they learn they will be working together, the more outgoing Jack introduces himself, and the men depart together. Through a series of stunning picturesque mountain sequences we are revealed to the exhaustive work involved in their job and begin to learn about each of the men. Ennis is quiet, soft-spoken and reserved. Having lost his parents when he was young, and raised primarily by his older siblings. Jack is louder and more erratically behaved. His father was a rodeo cowboy, and he had tried to follow the same path. Both desperate for work they sought out Mr Aguirre. Jack, who is in charge of securing the sheep, sleeps in a small tent in close proximity, while Ennis remains at the main camp cooking for them both and ordering the weekly supplies. Following a night of heavy drinking, Jack makes a sexual pass at Ennis after inviting him into his tent to avoid the freezing night. While at first rejecting Jack's advances, Ennis finally relinquishes. Although they both declare that they aren't queer and that this was a one-time incident, they build a surprising physical and emotional bond. A series of incidents on the mountain; a coyote attack resulting in the death of one of the sheep, a hail storm, and a visit from Mr Aguirre end their summer work a month short.

Having parted ways Ennis marries his long-time fiancee Alma (Michelle Williams) and they bear two children, while Jack meets and marries a rodeo rider, Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Their parallel stories are cut together. While the pair both seem content with their personal situations and care very much for their wives, you can't help but notice that their minds drift back to their companionship on Brokeback. Four years pass and Jack pays Ennis a visit. Communicating via postcard they start taking infrequent 'fishing trips' together. Lureen never seems to be suspicious, but Alma, who spies Ennis and Jack kissing, eventually files for a divorce. Jack broaches the subject of leaving their families and starting a life together on a small ranch. Ennis is reluctant due to the troubling childhood image of a man tortured and murdered for suspected homosexual behavior. As their meetings becomes more infrequent tensions begin to boil between the men and their lives slowly unravel. Jack is frustrated with the growing infrequency of their meetings and Ennis' reluctant attitude, while Ennis blames Jack for his own conflicted emotions that have caused his inability to connect to women the way he once had. Ennis has a brief but unsuccessful relationship with a waitress, while Jack finds solace to his urges with male prostitutes in Mexico. The conclusion is haunting, and after a twenty year friendship the incredible influence they had on each others lives is wonderfully captured in a pair of heartbreaking sequences.

The rising emotional power present throughout Brokeback Mountain cannot be ignored. As painfully real as any heterosexual melodrama, and even more tragic, Jack and Ennis' companionship is stirringly told. You become so immersed in their personal struggles that you hope they find will ultimately find happiness together in the end. While Ledger would eventually be awarded a Supporting Actor Oscar posthumously for The Dark Knight, his performance as the socially shut-down, tormented and yearning Ennis, is arguably his greatest in a career cut too short. Jake Gyllenhhaal, who's lead-sharing role here comes only a few years after his star-making turn in Donnie Darko (2001), has gone on to deliver great performances in Jarhead (2005) Zodiac (2007) and most recently Love and Other Drugs (2010). While Ennis chooses to internalize most of his feelings, usually letting his emotions fly when he is alone, Jack isn't so scared to express his desires, and adopts a more flamboyant persona. While many have questioned whether the pair are actually gay or not, it is made apparent that Jack is willing to admit that he is inescapably gay. He wants nothing more than to live free and open with Ennis but he must respect his partner's reticence to publicity. When we think of the way he is viewed by his colleagues, treated by his father-in-law and then the means of his fate, the nature of the character is wonderfully realized in Gyllenhaal's performance.

The careers of Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway have also boomed since their work in Brokeback. Anne received a Lead Actress Nomination for her work in Rachel Getting Married (2008) and Michelle for Blue Valentine (2010). While the film's impact rests predominantly on the performances, Ang Lee has done a wonderful job transforming the fine screenplay into a visionary work of art, and impeccably balancing the duel stories of his protagonists. Lee, a man who has been involved in seemingly every genre (from Sense and Sensibility to The Ice Storm to Crouching Tiger), received unanimous praise for his work here. The mountains and the surrounding forests of Wyoming are stunningly captured by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and the action perfectly accompanied by Gustavo Santaolalla's score. 

My Rating: 5 Stars


  1. Just about near-perfect film with Ledger's finest performance ever. In all honesty, I do believe he should have won that Oscar, because he is down-right amazing. Good Review!

  2. Absolutely agree with everything said above, although in my opinion, the Joker was the greatest Heath's part. However, I believe that Ennis Del Mar character equals to his work in TDK. And yes, five stars for the film!

  3. I think he was competing with Phillip Seymour-Hoffman (Capote) in 2005. He won everything, and it was an incredible performance. Having said that, Heath is fantastic here.
    Took me so long to watch Brokeback Mountain, but I would say it is near-flawless. Deserves nothing less than a 5 star rating.

    Thanks for the comments Dan and Lesya!