Brokeback Mountain (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee

Ennis: “I figure we got a one-shot deal going here.”
Jack: “It’s nobody’s business but ours.”
Ennis: “You know I ain’t queer.”
Jack: “Neither am I.”

I want to say these are two simple, uncomplicated men, with simple lives and simple desires, but it just isn’t true. To say that would confound us all as being simple. We reach for simplicity, for plain happiness and peace of mind, but the reality is never quite like that, and the case of Ennis and Jack is no different. Love isn’t ever straightforward, and it can become so complex that it rips you apart. You will have heard Brokeback Mountain described as ‘that gay cowboy movie’, but to be honest, sex/gender is irrelevant to a large extent. It’s about two people who long for and love each other, and how no matter how strongly their love is tested, it will not die.

This is a film remarkably free of pretension or obviousness. The direction is careful and restrained, as one expects from Ang Lee; working in tandem with one of my favourite cinematographers, Rodrigo Prieto, he crafts stunning compositions that are truly beautiful to behold. From a wide shot of sheep being herded through a valley, to a tight closeup of an actor’s pained performance, to one of the best final shots I’ve seen in a film, he uses the full frame superbly to extract the most out of every scene. Everything is placed perfectly: the actors, a campfire, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of beer. It all adds up to some of the most impressive images in recent memory, particularly as most of the subjects are everyday things that one wouldn’t normally give any thought to.

In the steady hands of an assured director, all the actors shine. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are good as the wives of Ennis and Jack, and Linda Cardellini and Anna Faris offer good support in brief roles. However, the movie is about the characters played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and they absolutely nail their roles. Ledger is garnering most of the praise in the press for his subdued, grunting performance, and I can understand that as it is some distance away from his real-life persona. For me, though, Gyllenhaal’s turn is marginally more impressive. He shows sensitivity, fragility, strength, and a deep sadness and regret; I’d be quite happy to see him take him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. They both are really very good, though. Their scenes together, right from the film’s opening, are compellingly well-acted and affecting.

I wonder how people are reacting to this film. I’ve read about religious zealots condemning the film (and in a couple of cases refusing to screen it), but I’m not interested in them. I want to know what the average male cinemagoer feels when a movie gets him to care strongly about – and love – two male characters. Has it provoked angry reactions, or maybe rethinks of personal philosophies? Personally, a heterosexual, I welcomed the opportunity to empathise with gay men in a film, as it challenges me and forces me to consider things I would otherwise avoid. Anyway, as stated earlier, gender was pretty much stripped away by the sensitivity of the portrayal. That’s the way it should be. It’s love, just as we know it – intoxicating, difficult, impossible to predict or prevent. There are significant elements in the plot concerning homophobia and the concealing of the relationship, but they are an aside, rather than the crux of the story. The focus is on the struggle of two people, and the effect their struggle has on the people close to them.

Overall, it loses a couple of points for covering a long period of time in too short a time-frame and for being a little episodic. Brokeback Mountain isn’t a great film, but it is a very good one – a serious, thoughtful, mostly subtle exploration of the Greatest of All Things. It deals with homosexuality in a very mature manner: while it plays an integral role in the characters’ lives, it isn’t what defines them. Their love for each other is what defines them, and ultimately, what destroys them.

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