Friday, February 03, 2006

Movie Review: Brokeback Mountain

(image curtesy of

I have been intrigued by the premise of “Brokeback Mountain” from the moment I first heard about the movie back in 2004. It was hard to miss all the hype surrounding this film especially when almost every other blog site that I frequently visit had updates about the movie. As the release date came closer, I was surprised to see that even the local MPH bookstores here were selling copies of Annie Proulx’s short story that the movie was based on. For a film that would surely not be shown in the local cinemas here, “Brokeback Mountain” seemed to get a lot of “word of mouth” promotion locally months before they started screening it in the States. Once it was released, it was the movie that everyone was raving about and one that everyone wanted to see.

Knowing that it would never play in a local cinema here, I was patiently waiting for the DVD release to watch the film everyone was raving about. It was not so long after the movie’s release that bootleg copies of the film on DVD started to be available locally. It was hard to resist not going out as soon as I heard it and buying one of these bootleg copy just to able to get to see this film since it was the only way I could get to watch in for the time being. I held on for as long as I did because I wanted to stand by my conviction of rewarding good films, by extension those making money out of it, by only buying original DVDs of their movies.

Temptation won out in the end when I was invited to a private screening of a copy of the film organized by a fellow blogger. The opportunity to watch this film in the same room with like-minded individuals whose lives and inner thoughts I have been reading about on their blogs was hard to resist. It was a shared experience that I found to be both comforting and liberating in of itself. I would definitely still buy an original copy of the DVD when they finally release it, which I am hoping would have a boatload of special features, just because I think that it will be a worthy addition to my DVD library.

For the uninitiated, “Brokeback Mountain” chronicles the tale of a relationship between two men who first met when they took up sheep herding up in the titular mountains in Wyoming. From their first terse and succinct verbal exchanges, it was clear that Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) had less things in common than the sheep they were tasked to herd. A combination of growing familiarity, lonely cold nights and liberal amounts of alcohol gradually warmed them to each other’s presence and allowed them to open up to each other. The familiarity was gradually replaced by growing affection towards each other that culminated in a physical encounter between the men that both never conceived happening.

The morning after brings renouncement of the affair, and then a make-out session that nullifies the renouncement not long after that. Their relationship was now set in stone and their journey was just beginning when the reality of their lives beyond the mountains began to intrude into their private Edenic existence. Both Jack and Ennis had prior plans that were now demanding their attention now that they have completed the job that the were paid for. For Ennis it was the lovely fiancée, Alma (Michelle Williams), who waits for him at the altar and for Jack it was the call of the rodeo at a chance of making money from bull-riding. The harshness first parting took both of them by surprised as both would never imagine how much their encounter would affect them.

Ennis and Jack go their separate ways into lives of quiet desperation made miserable because they're apart. In their aim to conform to social demands of their environment, they inavertedly victimized the women they take as their wives. Alma (Michelle Williams) mistakes Ennis' detachment for stern machismo, bearing his children but not his affection. Jack marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), if not for her looks and personality, then for her father's business connections. Jack figures if he can't be happy, he may as well get paid. Although they try their best to lived out their lives as what people around them will accept as “normal”, the memories of the Eden that they left behind still lingered with them.

It was only after 4 years after their first parting that Ennis got a postcard from Jack to tell him that he was coming to town and would like to meet up with his old friend. Barely suppressing his anticipation at the reunion, Ennis immediately realized that fire that they had together at Brokeback Mountain had not subsided through the years. They couldn’t restrain themselves from kissing each other passionately in plain view of a heartbroken Alma who finally found out the truth about her husband. Like excited teenagers, both men proceeded to a motel where they reignited their passion towards each other leading Jack to declare succinctly that “that ol' Brokeback got us good."

In the 20 years that followed, both men furtively reunited under the pretense of going to “fishing trips” up in the mountains. While both marriages at home were falling apart due to the secrets and compromises that they had to make, the bond between Jack and Ennis grew deeper. Jack continued to try to get Ennis to come away with him and set up a ranch together but Ennis recalled a traumatic childhood incident that ruled that option out. Brokeback Mountain was the one place in their lives where they felt most alive, most themselves. But, for Ennis, that's still painful to admit. "I wish I knew how to quit you," Jack tells Ennis at one point frustrated at his reluctance to be with him. To commit to anything more was something that Ennis was ill-equipped to handle.

A divorce from a long suffering Alma who had known of her husband’s relationship with Jack from the day he came to their doorstep brought Jack back thinking that Ennis would finally be willing to go away with him. Unable to break away from the societal mold that created him, Ennis decided that Jack’s dream of them being together was not something that he could be a part of. It was the last parting of the lovers as Ennis would later find out that Jack had died. Although he was told that Jack died in an accident, in his mind Ennis could only imagined that he died a terrible death in a gay bashing similar to the one that he witness in his childhood. In a harrowing and heartrending ending, Ennis finally come to terms with a life that he could have had but was unable to pursue due to who he felt he had to be. He would have move on with his live but no without the memories of the life he could have had.

The first thing that most people might hear about this film is that it is about “gay cowboys”. The thought of the two adult male leads engaging in consensual sex in a mountainous rangers of Wyoming could be a point of sale or one of controversy depending on the disposition of the viewer. While it is no doubt groundbreaking in a genre already filled with lavender-colored subtext for those looking for it, the novelty of it all could easily be removed and not impact the movie in the slightest. What is more important is that once one is past the point of contention, what emerges is a much more traditional tragedy about two people who simply cannot have what they want. Instead of the normal barriers of poverty, class or war separating the lovers, “Brokeback Mountain” presents the societal prejudice as the main culprit that stops them from being together.

Working from the adapted screenplay written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, Ang Lee steadily paced the action with a masterful hand. He doesn’t shy away from showing the audience the graphic lust the two male lead have for each other nor does he shy from showing the impact that lust have to the people around them. He was equally lavish with the time spent showing the beautiful vistas where the love relationship first started to bloom as beautifully captured by Rodrigo Prieto as the cinematographer of this film. If there was something to fault is Ang Lee’s direction it would be that at times the movie felt as long as the 20 years that the story took place due to several tedious pacing decisions. A firmer hand at the editing bay might helped in that regard for some of the more repetitive scenes that came up due to the episodic nature of the main characters’ relationship.

Both the main male leads in this film delivered the performances that this film required admirably. While the accents took getting used to especially those of us who don’t speak cowboy, the meaning that was being conveyed through clearly by the anguished looks and pregnant pauses. Heath Ledger, who usually comes off as flat, delivered his best performance to date playing the tortured Ennis who fights so hard against what his heart wants. Jake Gyllenhaal reprises the distant dreamer act he's played a hundred times before in other movie and the only difference is that now he's wearing a cowboy hat while doing it.

The female leads were not to be out shone in their performance in this film with both Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway giving good performances as different types of women tied down to these men. Williams, in particular, delivers the better performance of the two with her anguished Alma who suffers silently while knowing all along that whatever that she does it would not compare to what her husband feel towards Jack. I have been following her work from the days she was on “Dawson’s Creek” and I can safely say that she has grown as an actor in leaps and bounds from her days on that show.

One point of the production that didn’t really sit well is the apparent failure of the makeup department to really show the passage of time in the story. While Ledger’s Ennis looked like he hardly aged in the 20 years that the film was supposed to be set, Gyllenhaal’s Jack had the misfortune of having a silly looking mustache tacked on to show his age. Looking at that mustache, I can’t stop having the mental picture of Jack twirling the mustache like villains from an old silent-era western. The women of this movie also fared no better in the makeup department. Like Ennis, Williams' Alma seemed ageless despite the hardship that she had to go through while Hathaway’s Lureen grew blonder as her hairstyle changed from Dolly Parton to Sue Ellen Ewing within the runtime of the movie.

After hearing how much of a tear-jerker this movie was from those who had seen it before, I was a bit surprised with myself for not even having a teary moment during the screening. Given that I am easily reduce to a sobbing mess while watching “E.T” or the final episode of “Dawson’s Creek”, I had steeled myself for the waterworks but it was not as emotionally affecting as I thought that it would be. Other than the possibility this old heart has turned into stone, I guess that the episodic nature of the development of their relationship were too far apart resonantly to build up towards the heart wrenching ending. Knowing the ending from reading the original short story might also have contributed to the lack of emotional response to this film that everyone says effected them deeply. I may just need to go through additional viewing to find out why some people have said that this was the saddest film they have seen this year.

All in all “Brokeback Mountain” was worth the wait but at time seemed a bit over-rated on the delivery. While at times seemed tediously paced, Ang Lee delivered a finished product that would sure to become a talking piece for months if not years to come. Good script and good acting on the part of the cast gives this film that dare to speak of the love that has no name with characters who speak even less with a solid base to saddle up and ride off to the sunset victorious against all odds.


Steve Middleton said...

Interesting review. This film has (unexpectedly) affected me profoundly. I think it is the sense of tragedy that moved me most. I was also upset at the end by the singing of 'He Was a Friend of Mine' as the credits rolled. BTW - Jack had the moustache - not Ennis. But I get the point about aging!
My review on my blog.

Nickxandar said...

Thanks for the correction.

I was almost certain that I had mixed up the two character names in this review but I could not find it until you pointed them out.