“Brokeback Mountain” is a fine, at times gripping, film, featuring a set of outstanding performances and artful, restrained direction from Ang Lee.
But it is not a great film, nor does it deserve its status as the odds-on favorite for picture of the year.
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past couple months, you know what “Brokeback” is all about: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as two cowboys who spend a summer together and end up falling in love. Such a movie is a stone-cold lock for controversy, but it is undoubtedly one of the best (if not the first) major motion pictures to depict homosexual men in a realistic, non-“Queer Eye” manner.
Hollywood and those that cover it have basically decided “Brokeback” is THE movie of 2005. It continues to rack up best-picture awards from various film societies, and is the best-reviewed movie of the year. Many critics have taken the position that the homosexuality is secondary to the overall story—it shouldn’t matter to us whether this movie is about a gay relationship or not, they claim, because it’s not about gay love, it’s about true love.
That theory is bunk, and this deficiency keeps “Brokeback Mountain” from transcendence.
The movie opens in Signal, Wyoming, in 1963, where we first meet Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), both looking for summer work as sheepherders. They are hired and sent up Brokeback Mountain with their “cargo” (one of several beautifully shot scenes by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto), left to their own devices for a week at a time in between supply runs. So, yeah, they have some time on their hands. On one particularly frigid night, they sleep in the same tent for warmth and Jack pulls Ennis’ arm over his body; at first Ennis reacts with revulsion, but Jack quickly presses his affections and the two have sex. (For those wondering, although the sex is quite aggressive, the filming is tasteful.)
Did that feel like an abrupt summation? Well, the movie does, too, and that proves to be its undoing.
I wasn’t looking at my watch, but it felt like the sex scene was about 25 minutes in, at the most. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for getting acquainted with these guys, much less allow them to get to know each other. From that first summer, “Brokeback Mountain” follows the lives of these two socially-crossed lovers for the next 20 years of their lives as they both marry, father children, and continue to see each other several times a year in a series of trysts back up the mountain. This portion of the film is too long, while the first part is too short.
No, this movie is all about the fact that these two characters are gay, male lovers. All of the tension is created by Ennis’ resistance to Jack’s plea for the two of them to settle down on a ranch together and live happily ever after. They’re “stuck,” Ennis says, not because he doesn’t want to leave his lifeless relationship with his wife, but simply for fear of “coming out.” As a child, Ennis was exposed to a violent scene of bigotry in which a gay man was sadistically murdered simply because of his sexual orientation—Ennis is literally scared to death of suffering the same fate.
If this movie was a love story between a man and a woman, it would fall flat. But Ennis’ and Jack’s homosexuality distracts us from the lack of depth in their affair—it makes for compelling drama, sure, just not the drama we’ve been promised. In the end, there is very little in the way of explanation for why these two lovers would risk their families and, in Jack’s case, drive 14 hours one way just for a few days together. Other than the sex, of course, but they could find that elsewhere (Jack does, in fact, but he still “can’t quit” Ennis—why, nobody knows, including, apparently, the two characters).
And we are also distracted by the amazing acting on full display in this movie. As the stoic Ennis, a man more of grunts than words, Ledger gives not just the performance of his career, but of a lifetime. It’s nearly impossible to believe the man so fully inhabiting this character is the same blonde-haired Australian pretty boy from such flops as “The Four Feathers” and “A Knight’s Tale.” His vocal delivery is reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl Childers from “Sling Blade” (without the mental retardation, of course), and he speaks as much with his body as his mouth.
As Ledger’s counterpart, Gyllenhaal does not provide quite the same revelation, but he certainly holds his own. Meanwhile, supporting actresses Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are fantastic (in that order) as Ennis’ and Jack’s wives, respectively.
But in the end, “Brokeback Mountain” still comes off as an agenda-driven film, and I go to the movies for entertainment and hopefully a little enlightenment, not full-on preaching (which is why I haven’t seen “Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” or “Crash”).