Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Review: Brokeback Mountain

Sometimes, the hardest thing to do with a film is avoid labeling it. Granted, there are occasions when simple phrases can get an accurate handle on a film. For example, calling King Kong a movie about a giant ape is about as on-point as you can get, and because of the film's self-proclaimed spectacle being its largest personality trait, such pigeon-holing doesn't really take away from the movie. But most movies are harder to describe so simply, especially if the filmmaker's sights are set more on genuine emotions, whether humor, pain, death, or love. This is the frustration I face when I tell someone that one of my favorite films is Rushmore. This admission is usually met with glazed stares, and things only worsen when they invariably ask "What's it about?" and I find myself unable to answer. The phrase "coming of age" has become so overused it's lost whatever meaning it may have originally held; I could tell them it's a comedy, and that usually perks their ears up, though when I amend the phrase to "smart comedy," things usually head back south; I could say it's about love, and growing up, and death, and how, toward the end of the film, Herman Blume's raised fist at the close of the play "Heaven and Hell" manages to be funnier and more moving every time; I think of a thousand things to tell them, none of which would help, so I usually just tell them to rent it, knowing they won't, and they know I know, and I know they know I know, so then we just go back to talking about fantasy sports or something. The film is too strong, too complex, just too much of anything for me to be able to spit out a log line. This is the case with most great films, and it's the case with Brokeback Mountain, a strong, sad, moving story of doomed love that most people won't see because it's been stuck with a label for the years it spent languishing in development hell: "the gay cowboy movie." And yes, that's part of it, but if that's all you want to hear about a movie, you'd do well to change that. Director Ang Lee has done more than helm the latest critical darling and movie of the moment (there's one every year). Working from a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, Lee has crafted a powerful tale about love and loss, and about how longing can pull two people apart as much as it unites them.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet in Wyoming in 1963, working the summer as hired hands for rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). They spend their days herding sheep and nights keeping an eye on the flock up on Brokeback Mountain, and it's this part of the story that defines the tone and heart of the film. Jack is loud and arrogant, all cocksure attitude and rodeo grins, while Ennis is much quieter, mumbling most of his words through an often clenched jaw. One night around the campfire, full of whiskey, they share Jack's tent, and wind up having sex in what could be the most hyped and anticipated love scene in years. As I watched the film, there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the theater throughout the beginning scenes, like we were all wading through the exposition to get to the inevitable sex. And while this is understandable, such singular focus distracts from the surrounding beauty of the film and the fact that the scene itself, though somewhat graphic, is in no way explicit. The next morning, sobered up and back to his restrained self, Ennis tells Jack, "This is a one-shot thing we got here. ... I ain't queer." Jack responds, "Me neither." They're forced to make public denials to each other as social safeguard, but the subtext is clear. And like that, their love is recognized but left unnamed. In fact, there are no more uses in the film of any terms for sexual orientation or Jack and Ennis' affair; Lee is smart enough to know that it simply is what it is, and that any attempts to strictly define it would rob it of its weight.

The summer ends, and Jack and Ennis part ways, and the rest of the film tracks their lives over the next 15 years. Ennis stays in small-town Wyoming and marries his girl back home, Alma (Michelle Williams), while Jack winds up doing some rodeo down in Texas and marrying barrel-rider Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), heir to a farm-machinery empire. The widening gap in their financial situations parallels the changes in their own lives; when Jack and Ennis reunite after four years for another week up at Brokeback, Jack is working for Lureen's father and pulling in serious money while Ennis and Alma are living in a small apartment above the laundromat. But their reunion is a powerful one, and they agree to get away to Brokeback several times a year.

Although the film takes place in 1960s and '70s America, it almost seems to exist in its own world and time. No mention is made of presidents, Vietnam, or any of the major historical highlights from the era that could trap the film. Up on Brokeback, working as ranchers, the story could be five years old, or a hundred. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does a wonderful job at capturing the beauty of the mountains, and the cowboys' lifestyle is equally complemented by Gustavo Santaolalla's gorgeous score built around acoustic guitars and pedal steel. This is, after all, a Western, and it looks and sounds the part.

Ledger and Gyllenhaal turn in fantastic performances in a real graduation from their previous work. Gyllenhaal's Jack is eager and loyal, more sure of what he has with Ennis. Ledger here is quiet and soft-spoken, but far from stupid; Ennis is surprisingly poetic, and the moments when he comes out of his shell and Jack stops putting on a front, and when they're really together, are heartbreaking. Williams and Hathaway are also better in their supporting roles than expected, each taking giant leaps here away from the kiddie images cultivated in their earlier hits (teen soap "Dawson's Creek" for Williams and The Princess Diaries for Hathaway). Alma is a strong but subdued housewife, and Lureen a free spirit that seems to love the idea of Jack more than the actual person.

Much has been made of the film in the press, and though Lee and others are quick to point out that the film took years to get off the ground, it's no doubt enjoying a success now that it couldn't have imagined had it been released seven years ago, when Gyllenhaal was first sent the script. Some in the press feel the need to herald the film while needlessly playing up a largely embellished split between the coasts and the plains; but others are taking an even more dangerous tactic by turning the film into the very stereotype it avoids, and this is offensive. Brokeback Mountain is a superbly crafted film and a genuinely moving love story, but calling it a "gay love story" only assigns it a needless label that will damage everyone's perception of the film. No one refers to Pretty Woman as a "straight love story"; why the double standard?

As the story builds, Jack and Ennis turn into men leading different lives. Ennis watched his daughters grow up and bounces between low-paying ranching jobs, while Jack raises a family and becomes a successful salesman for Lureen's father. They meet at Brokeback when they can, and the mountain begins to transform into this mythic thing inside and between them, both a symbol of their relationship and the memory of an idyllic past growing fainter by the day. Their story is the same as everyone's: When we're lucky enough to figure out what we want, we can almost never hang on to it.


great review daniel. carisse and i were just saying last night how we couldn't wait to hear your thoughts on this film. i think you persuaded me. mmmm...larry mcmurtry...good.

By Blogger Cody Blair, at 8:10 AM, December 21, 2005  

Interesting. Perhaps I'll give it a whirl. Seeing the movie that is. Not gay cowboy sex.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:09 AM, December 21, 2005  

Cody: Thanks man. I cannot recommend the film strongly enough. It's great. Also, since you like McMurtry, you should check out The Last Picture Show (1971).

Cowboy: Whirl away. I'm curious to see how the denizens of the Metroplex take to the story.

By Blogger Dan Carlson, at 1:10 PM, December 21, 2005  

I've read several reviews of Brokeback Mountain - yours is the one I would have written. Its a love story - plain and simple!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:03 PM, December 21, 2005  

I'm planning to Cowboy up myself. I've talked to plenty who aren't seeing it because of it's label. It's pretty sad.

By Blogger Kyle, at 10:57 PM, December 22, 2005  

great review, thank you

By Blogger Greg Allen, at 11:13 AM, December 29, 2005  

My bf and I must be the only people on the planet (outside of religious conservatives, of course) who didn't really like the movie.

Hmmmm... is there something wrong with us? LOL

By Blogger fried-neurons, at 8:48 AM, January 02, 2006  

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