Directed by Ang Lee
Almost as interesting as the film itself is the polarizing controversy that’s been generated. The [film] critical press has been in full-tilt ga-ga mode – while certain conservative are equally vocal. We seem to be split into two factions. Camp #1: Greatest film of the year! – maybe of all time! – it must be true! – all the critics say so! Many in this camp decided this before seeing it. Camp #2: This “gay cowboy” movie must be stamped out! The sky will fall if a society tolerates this kind of thing! Decided this without seeing the movie – and have no intention of seeing it. My take on Brokeback Mountain falls somewhere between these two extremes and I’ll bet that there are many people who agree with me, but you’d never know it from the press coverage. It’s a fine movie – one of the best of the year but I do have a few problems with it.
Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) are thrust together in the mountain wilderness of Wyoming one summer on a sheep-herding job. They camp out in high country while the sheep graze for free on government land. One thing leads to another and they end up having a love affair – but they’re both in denial to some extent – Ennis: “I ain’t queer!”; Jack: “Me neither!” So they part ways at the end of the summer and don’t see each other for four years – during which time they both get married and have kids.
Brokeback is a tale of forbidden love – Jack and Ennis get together periodically to go camping up on Brokeback Mountain while maintaining their imperfect but real marriages back home. The strength of the film is contrast between the stunning natural beauty of the wilderness while they’re together and their mundane domestic lives – but it’s not a simple black/ white contrast – both men form real – not sham -- family relationships (wives and kids). Their relationships with their spouses interested me to the point that I wish more screen time had been devoted to the marriages. In particular, Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and Jack have a fascinating marriage of convenience – in their early scenes, they clearly have a thing for each other, but things go stale, as is often the case even in marriages not involving bi-sexuals. Jack’s sexuality was a taboo subject in their household. Not a single word of dialog indicates that Anne (or her father, who dislikes Jack for unspecified reasons) knows for sure that Jack is bi-sexual – but there is a tremendous dramatic tension in their scenes as a family. It made me wonder how much Anne knew about Jack and when she knew it. I wish that relationship had been explored further. Ang Lee chose to spend most of the film in the quiet solitude of the wilderness where Ennis and Jack are together. Those scenes form the core of the film – I’m not saying that they’re unimportant but the wilderness scenes got a bit tedious. Some of that could have been cut in favor of more development of their home lives.
The camping scenes on Brokeback feature not only the natural beauty of gorgeous exterior cinematography (shot in Alberta, Canada) but a soundtrack featuring gentle acoustic guitar and pedal steel that fits the mood perfectly, unobtrusively. All of the actors do excellent work but two stand out to the point that I hope they are considered for Oscars. Heath Ledger is outstanding as a man recovering from a rough childhood who has trouble expressing himself – the performance is tight-lipped, focused and intense – very convincing. Beyond her actual dialog, Anne Hathaway (as Jack’s wife, Lureen) conveyed so much about their marriage – and her apparent satisfaction in it as long as the forbidden subject is never breached – she left me wanting more.
My one big problem with Brokeback is an overemphasis on the quiet, contemplative camping trip scenes – they’re visually beautiful and very well done but many of them seem to drag on a little too long and some could have been cut. That excess gave the film a somber, ponderous feel – it would have been better to tighten things up a bit. Ang Lee did the same thing in Hulk but the effect was much worse – a comic-book, action film can’t afford to create that kind of feeling – the youth audience is too easily bored. The effect in a movie like Brokeback is not as severe – indeed many people will react by thinking, “Wow, that’s deep.”
My other criticism is the production design, which was very good 90% of the time but contains a couple of screaming errors. In their first trip to Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis were camping with the sheep for the whole summer. Don’t you think it might make sense to bring sleeping bags – as opposed to just a blanket or two? They’re camping in high country – it can get very cold at night, even in the summer. And it’s 1963, not 1863 -- so it’s silly to suppose that they would go up there for a whole season so ill-equipped. Worse, their tent is the most absurd piece of production design that I can remember seeing in a serious film. Camping for two or three months in high country with a tent that won’t even keep you dry? Give me a break. And it wasn’t a financial issue – look at the horses and the saddles – expensive stuff. The ridiculously bad camping equipment is a device – it’s contrived – to facilitate their initial huddling together – that’s when one thing led to another.
It’s often said that sad love stories are the most powerful. Brokeback is a very sad love story, beautifully told. Ang Lee wisely avoided a moralizing tone. There’s clearly a point of view: that it’s a shame that their love was frustrated to such an extent, but Lee resisted the temptation to push the message too hard. He also didn’t make an explicit film – it’s a love story with very, very little on-screen sex. This is a movie that you should see, not only because of its merits as a story well-told, but because it seems to be a hot topic of conversation. But don’t believe the incredible hype that some in the media are churning out – just go and enjoy the film.
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