Brokeback Mountain Movie Review

The first thing you're likely to hear about Brokeback Mountain, the new film from Ang Lee, is that it's about gay cowboys. Truthfully, that's all the novelty it has to offer. Just the thought of screen hunks Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal making out is a point of sale or controversy, depending on your point of view. But once you get past the hook, what emerges is a much more traditional, but no less affecting, tragedy about two people who simply cannot have what they want.

Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) meet while working for Joe Aguirre (a menacing Randy Quaid), looking after sheep on the eponymous mountain. Their friendship develops over fairly archetypal lines. Ennis is the stoic one, Jack the mischievous one. Lee wisely lets this develop naturally over time. Ultimately, though, in a burst of passion, the two reveal what's been simmering since they first saw each other.

Once Jack and Ennis return to their everyday worlds, an aching futility creeps in. They separate and attempt to settle down and live "normal" lives, meeting clandestinely on the mountain that brought them together. But nothing will ever be the same for either man.

Lee brings his A-game, combining the romantic texture of Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with the awkward realism of The Ice Storm. He doesn't shy away from the graphic lust these two have for each other any more than he does the lush grandeur of the surroundings in which their love blossoms. To the latter end, Rodrigo Prieto, a cinematographer usually known for grittier fare such as 21 Grams, contributes some of the most gorgeous images of Lee's oeuvre.

The performances are equally compelling. Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams give career-best turns as the wives of Jack and Ennis respectively, suffering in their own ways through quietly disastrous marriages. Gyllenhaal's contribution admirably overcomes increasingly distracting make-up jobs that resemble a high school play's attempt at aging a character.

Ledger gives the film's most complex, engrossing portrayal. Ennis presents himself as a more conventional male stereotype than Jack, so the tension between his John Wayne persona and his sexuality is all the more demanding. Ledger favors nuance in depicting this struggle, with powerful results.

The screenplay, adapted from the Annie Proulx short story by Diana Ossana and Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry, divides into two parts. The first is a nearly self-contained encounter tale. The second follows the characters through decades of betrayal and compromise. Though chronologically disparate, these pieces fit together nicely through the writers' choices, highlighting moments that reveal the growth not only of the love affair, but of the characters themselves.

The love story depicted in Brokeback Mountain is as traditional as that depicted in Casablanca, Romeo & Juliet, or Gone with the Wind, but instead of war, family rivalry, or the general bitchiness of one of the characters getting in the way, societal prejudice is the culprit. This is not to say that the film explicitly attempts to make some sort of statement about gay rights or social injustice. If anything, the film's unswerving focus on the relationship, treating it with the same narrative respect reserved for Rhett and Scarlett or Harry and Sally, is a statement in and of itself. That Lee, Ledger, and everyone else involved are in top form elevates this film from mere gimmick to a work of universal substance, earning its heartbreak every step of the way.

Reviewed at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.

I most certainly do not.


Comments

Brokeback Mountain Rating

" Essential "

Rating: R, 2005

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