It’s no easy thing to write a review of a film which has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Brokeback Mountain is not simply a movie; it’s a mirror that reflects back our individual, cultural and political viewpoints. The fact that it can do this without many having even yet seen it, confirms that fact – hence the controversy over it failing to win the Best Picture Oscar. Separating the film from the associated hype and cultural significance is of course doomed to fail. But hell, I’ll give it a shot anyway.
Two young out-of-work men sign up for a job herding sheep for a summer in 1963. It’s a lonely existence out on Brokeback Mountain; two guys and a few thousand woolly animals. It takes one particularly cold night, and the tough guys are in each other’s arms. They resist the implications; determined that this be a once off event. They marry, have children and move on in life, but their love continues to grow over the years. It’s a tragic love story with no easy conclusions.
So is it a good movie? There are many gay themed films that are made every year. Some are good and some are bad, but the vast majority are only seen at festivals and art cinemas. There’s a reason why this one is the success it is, despite a cinema-going public that has a general aversion to seeing two men making whoopee.
Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain is epically imagined. The landscapes give the personal story of two cowboys in love a wide and universal scope; the sweeping vistas of mountains and valleys hint at the elemental nature of the love that starts in those same hills. Yet, great cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Alexander) and direction by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) aside, the soul of the film lies within Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger’s remarkable performances.
Ledger in particular modifies his accent (he’s Australian), his posture and the way he talks to represent the repressed inner life of the mumbling Ennis del Mar – certain to be remembered as one of cinema’s most tragic characters. Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is more open to the world, but he nevertheless brilliantly paints him as complex and conflicted man. The two actors also have the challenging task of representing the physical and emotional maturing of these men over the space of two decades. Without the believability and integrity of these characters, Brokeback Mountain simply would not work. It would be a pretty travelogue with no substance or resonance.
You may also be surprised to learn that there are women in Brokeback Mountain. Michelle Williams and Ann Hathaway play the spouses of these two cowboys; women who have been cheated out of a full marriage. They are both also impressive in their roles, expressing more through their silences and expressions than through the words which they use to evade the truth. This is ultimately not their story, but they succeed in depicting how self-denial and self-deceit also dramatically impact on the people around us.
No matter what anyone tells you (“it’s really about two ‘straight men’ that happen to mysteriously make a connection”), this is a gay love story – it’s about two (rather gorgeous) men in love.
But beyond the obvious superficial difference, whether you’re gay or straight, the basic emotional experience of being in love is the same. And while the man-on-man love scene is hardly porno standard, the real reason this film will primarily appeal to a largely female and gay audience is that it’s something of chick flick; there are no car chases, no fancy fight scenes and no exploding buildings. It’s an old style forbidden love tragedy – just with two guys doing the yearning and the loving.
Yet, while the film is a romance, its impact goes further, because at heart it is also a tale of missed chances. Every human being can understand the bitter regrets of opportunities not taken out of fear and insecurity; opportunities that can never be revisited thanks to the passage of time.
It’s a slow film; paced languidly and taking its own sweet time to tell its story. You’ll either get irritated or let your guard down as a result. If you allow the latter to happen, you’ll be rewarded by a satisfyingly emotional punch that makes Brokeback Mountain the best film of the year. Unlike most other flicks that manipulate you like a cheap hooker, Brokeback’s emotional weight is grounded in devastatingly real human truth, not cinema trickery.
Yeah, in my books it was robbed!