Home > Reviews > REVIEW – Brokeback Mountain

REVIEW – Brokeback Mountain

Directed by: Ang Lee
Produced by: Diana Ossana, James Schamus
Screenplay by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana
Edited by: Geraldine Peroni, Dylan Tichenor
Cinematography by: Rodrigo Prieto
Music by: Gustavo Santaolalla
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Linda Cardellini, Randy Quaid, Kate Mara
Based on the 1997 short story by Annie Proulx
Year: 2005

 

It’s been 12 years since the release of the film dubbed “The Gay Cowboy Movie” was released, and yet Brokeback Mountain still arguably remains the most recognized film about a same-sex romance in the public mind. Though several films have come out since representing LGBTQ people (the incredible Moonlight is probably the most recent to gain the national spotlight, even though it was largely thanks to its near exclusion from said spotlight at the Oscars), but none have yet to have the same kind of cultural impact as this 2005 release. I think it’s safe to say that the film was a milestone, regardless of whether you actually saw it or not. The film’s release created a minefield of various controversies on all sides of “the gay issue,” and the concept alone of usually rugged character types falling in love with one another led to the film becoming a cultural phenomenon. Predictably, detractors accused the film of “pushing the gay agenda down our throats,” and it was also outright banned from showing in certain countries. The term “brokeback” entered the public lexicon as a word synonymous with “on the down-low,” usually used humorously in moments of gay panic. Supporters of the film couldn’t escape the outrage machine, either, accusing the Academy Awards of homophobia when the film famously lost its Best Picture nomination to the allegedly inferior and heavy-handed morality play Crash. They even accused the marketing of similar shenanigans when any scenes of romance between the two cowboys was deemphasized or just outright excluded from ads – again, despite it widely being known as “The Gay Cowboy Movie.” The cultural impact of the film cannot be denied, but I think even supporters lose sight of what is arguably more important: that Brokeback Mountain is arguably one the best romantic films ever made.

Brokeback Mountain begins in 1963, when Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist – cowboys from opposite ends of the country – meet each other while working as shepherds for a season up on the Wyoming mountain. Jack, a talkative rodeo cowboy from Texas, manages to get his quiet companion Ennis to open up as they spend more time together there. The son of an emotionally distant and harsh father, Ennis was raised by his older brother and sister on the Wyoming ranch they had inherited when their parents died. He then grew up and drifted away from them, too, becoming the self-reliant and emotionally distant man that he also became. As the two men spend more time together, however, it becomes apparent to both that their bond has become more than just friendship, but even when the two do acknowledge their mutual attraction, neither really knows what to do about it as emotions run hot and cold toward one another. The season ends, and the two initially go their separate ways, determined to move on from Brokeback Mountain. Both marry wives – Ennis to the quiet Alma and Jack to fellow rodeo spitfire Lureen – but over the next 20 years, neither Jack nor even the conflicted Ennis can shake their feelings for one another.

For all the noise surrounding the film’s subject matter, I personally think the most remarkable thing about Brokeback Mountain is that it is, largely, not a “big issue” film. (Roger Ebert would concur.) While the film does necessarily but subtly examine the psychology and events that influenced these men to deny their obvious feelings – particularly Ennis, who has some seriously deep-seated self-loathing issues – it is also not concerned about proselytizing about the overall experience of being gay. It’s a film about this particular couple and isn’t concerned about making the relationship a generic stand-in for all gay relationships in the name of hammering home a specific message. Ingeniously, this makes the film all the more universal and relatable, regardless of the orientation of audience members.

Graciously, as a result of this mindfulness, the film also does not set out to portray its leads as perfect, which would have been so easy to do in a story that largely deals with the fears of persecution. Despite their obvious love, both Ennis and Jack still fight and hurt each other in various ways. They’re also careless and clueless about how their affair is affecting their families, sometimes to the point of cruelty. Similarly, despite their nearly opposite personalities and differing awareness of what’s been going on, the women in the film – Alma and Lureen – could have also easily been written as villains holding back their husbands, but director Ang Lee and writers Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana are much too empathetic to go down that route. After all, these women are also victims of the toxic atmosphere surrounding the nature of the relationship between two men, each of whom separately promised to love them – and the film hurts for the wives as much as it does for the two leads. Each of these four people deserves better than the situations they’ve been dealt thanks ultimately to social pressures, and the actors also deserve recognition for their part in selling that aspect of their story.

Ledger’s and Williams’ nuanced and heart-wrenching performances alone would’ve been worth the price of admission were this a conventional romantic drama featuring Ennis and Alma, but there are two other great performances in the film that I feel don’t get the same level of recognition. Gyllenhaal’s incredible, and the task of playing the more affectionate and forthright Jack without resorting to neediness or stereotypes is noteworthy. Jack is neither an effeminate substitute for “the woman” role, nor is he subversively hypermasculine to compensate for any alleged deviance from expectations. His emotional honesty and affection complements Ennis’ more repressed nature and brings out similar qualities in him as a result. Anne Hathaway, who doesn’t get as much screentime as Williams or their male costars, nonetheless deserves credit for her portrayal of Lureen, a character that could’ve easily become “the bitch.” She’s a savvy businesswoman who’s led a privileged life and is set in her ways, but she’s not overbearing, and she clearly loves and supports Jack when people put him down. We’re given clues that she is seemingly conditioned to think his emotional distance from her is just the way men are, and Hathaway’s last scene in the film conveys a lot about what Lureen has gone through in very little sceentime and in very subtle ways. It’s a smaller role, but no less incredible than that of her equally impressive costars.

 

There’s no denying that the film is remarkable, and even amidst the controversy and chatter that still surrounds it whenever it’s mentioned, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the film was also rightfully acclaimed for its various achievements, regardless of all that. In spite of an upset, the Academy still nominated it for Best Picture, Best Leading Actor (Heath Ledger), Best Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams), and Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto) and awarded the film for Directing (Ang Lee), Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana), and Original Score (Gustavo Santaolalla). The Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Screen Actors’ Guild also acknowledged the film for pretty much the same categories. The only thing that rivals the film’s cultural impact and social importance of Brokeback Mountain is the unmistakable level of care that director Ang Lee, his cast, the writers, and crew poured into the film. Brokeback Mountain is a beautiful, gentle, sensitive, and human story and an overall masterpiece, there’s no denying, but just acknowledging the film’s accolades and describing it really doesn’t do it any justice. You really should just experience it for yourself to see where all the attention should’ve been in the first place

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5

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