This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series for French Toast Sunday.
If you’re anything like me, before you saw it you knew Brokeback Mountain as just the gay cowboy movie, or that film where Donnie Darko and the Joker get jiggy in a tent. Technically this is true, and it’s the reason the film has such notoriety – it’s not often that such a high profile film centres around a homosexual relationship between two otherwise straight male characters – but there’s a great deal more to this film besides that one aspect.
This was only the second time I’d seen this film, but I’m going to attempt to review it as though it was my first watch, which was in fact just a couple of years ago. I had nothing against the idea of watching Brokeback, it just seemed like a film that wouldn’t do anything for me. I’m not necessarily a fan of romantic dramas, and this seemed like one that would be especially light on humor and heavy on melodrama. I watch enough depressing films as it is, so I didn’t need another one in my memory. I feel these points are all valid when laid against this film – it’s not exactly a laugh riot, and by the end you’ll probably feel like there’s something akin to a hole inside you where happiness used to be, but that takes nothing away from this film being incredibly worthy of your time.
To begin with, the performances are for the most part excellent. Ledger is especially impressive as Ennis Del Mar, the mumbling ranch hand from low beginnings. It’s a very low key performance, and there are times when you may need subtitles to ascertain exactly what he’s trying to say through the side of his cheek, but Ledger shows here just what a powerful talent he had, and what a loss his untimely death was to the world of cinema. Ennis is a man of few words – even when writing a postcard – but who is quick to anger and reach for his fists when they’re needed. His upbringing hasn’t taught him how to deal with such useless things as emotions, all he knows is when a job needs doing, and how to get it done. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, puts in a fine performance which only looks weak by comparison. His Jack Twist to me comes off as false and concocted, as though we are seeing him through a fantastical window, in the manner Ennis may view him. Twist, who also has a frankly ridiculous name, is the epitome of cowboy cliché, being a good ole’ rodeo rider who marries Anne Hathaway’s glamorous rodeo queen, who is even named Lureen for heaven’s sake! Gyllenhaal plays everything a little over the top and unbelievable, so his actions don’t quite play true, but as I said this could all be seen from Ennis’ perspective. He can’t fathom Jack’s lifestyle, only hearing about it from Jack himself and never seeing the real thing. Michelle Williams, as Ennis’ long-suffering wife Alma, is a much more grounded, believable character in comparison. She’s underused, but then this isn’t her story.
Ang Lee is wise to get the most famous, much-discussed scene, in which our two leads discover their feelings for one another during a sheep-watching summer on the eponymous landmark, over with relatively early on. I remember my initial expectations of the film were it would predominantly cover that one summer, gradually showing the two men falling in love over the course of two hours, with little action occurring outside of their relationship. As it happens, more than half of the film is spent dealing with the repercussions over a huge timespan, taking in events happening decades after that first encounter.
Throughout the film, there’s several really heart-breaking, gut-twisting moments, and I think the one that gets me the most is Ennis’ reaction after the guys come back down from the mountain and head their separate ways. Ennis is a bottled up guy who, when his emotions become too much for him to contain, suffers violent outbursts, and when he breaks down at the sight of Jack driving away, potentially never to be seen again, the sheer anguish and confusion on Ledger’s face is masterful. Unsurprisingly, Ledger was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, but unsurprisingly he did not win, as he was up against Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. (It was a very strong year for this category, with Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line and David Strathairn in Good Night and Good Luck also in contention.) Speaking of the Academy Awards, there was much furore when Brokeback Mountain, seemingly the favorite, did not win the Best Picture award. Here’s the thing; I kind of like Crash, and never had an issue with that winning. Yes it’s silly at times, a little on-the-nose message-wise and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges should not be allowed in movies, but it’s a film I’m not ashamed to admitting I’ve seen at least half a dozen times.
The supporting cast features a young Kate Mara as Ennis’ grown-up daughter, and tiny roles for Anna Faris and David Harbour, but it excels in casting Randy Quaid in a serious role as the guys’ bigoted, toothpick-chewing boss. He is able to imbue a great deal of menace on his big round face that it was disappointing he wasn’t in the film more. The film also begins to trail off a little towards the end, as the rambling, sporadic nature of the plot dissolves in front of us, in much the same way as the memories of their time together become somewhat forgotten for those involved. That being said, it’s still a tender, highly emotional film, that should not be branded as just the gay cowboy film, it’s much more than that.
Choose Film 8/10