Brokeback Mountain (Widescreen)
Sound: B- Extras: C+ Film: B
Ang Lee is the most overrated filmmaker of our time, but
even he could not ruin Brokeback Mountain, though this critic expected
disaster after the overrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ice
Storm that is a Right-Wingers’ revisionist dream of the 1970s intended or
not, I never hear critics celebrating or anyone remembering Ride With The
Devil either and let’s not forget the disastrous (if now cult item)
attempted update of The Hulk.
Lee almost retired after that fiasco, but reconsidered when he decided
to take on the famed screenplay adaptation of the very short story by Annie
Proulx, by no less than Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. McMurtry’s work on the big screen is already
represented by two all-time feature film classics: Martin Ritt’s Hud
(1963) and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Intended or not, Brokeback Mountain
(2005) concludes as sort of loose trilogy about the last of The West, the shady
side of the American Dream and the individual against the changes (often
subtle) that deny them success.
Heath Ledger, saving himself from bad film hell, pulls off
an amazing performance out of nowhere as Ennis Del Mar, a young man who is
looking to make money at a herding job.
It is here he meets Jack Twist (the amazing Jake Gyllenhaal, who is
turning out to be one of the greatest actors of his generation) in the same
hiring office of Aguirre (Randy Quaid, who is not in the film much) when both
get hired to do the job. At first, they
impress each other with their working skills, then slowly become plain old
buddies. That makes sense, especially
if they don’t have any personality clash or have colliding work ethics. Eventually though, on one cold night, they
find a more intimate connection.
It is 1963 and what becomes a physically and sexually
intimate moment could be written off as a fluke, experimentation, or just a
once-in-a-lifetime thing. It happens
more often than many would admit, and fine.
However, as time goes on, it is obvious that more than a passing
connection has developed, even if they do not always get it. So much so that both eventually marry and
have children, but that does not stop them from occasionally getting
together. Are they gay, bi-sexual, is
it a long-term infatuation or something else?
One suggestion is that it is about socio-economic class, that they
suggest a freedom if they had more money and a person who could identify with
that. Ennis would like to do the same
job on a larger, more profitable scale, while Jack wants to go rodeo and live
life in a faster lane, though he eventually talks about reviving his childhood
home and turning the surrounding area into a productive farming area.
Yet, the sexual affair goes on in fishing get-togethers
every few years and they continue to consider some options. The idea of actually going away with each
other and leaving the constraining world behind is considered more impossible
by Ennis than Jack, who it turns out was terrorized and essentially sexually
abused by association by his father when forced to look at a dead gay man who
was viciously abused and mutilated by a homophobic gang of locals who did it
because they knew they could get away with it.
Even as the mid-1970s arrives and the Gay Rights movement is in full
swing, it never reaches the limitedly educated young men in the still backwards
South. The implications of this far
exceed two men involved in any gay relations, which is the true reason why this
film hit such a chord with the public.
The fact that so many people were shocked by any of the
sexual intimacy here is amazing, showing how backwards even semi-mainstream
cinema is. Mind you, this film has been
issued ten years after the failed Gay New Wave and the reaction this
film received is yet further proof of what a wreck and missed opportunity a
movement by real gay men with real gay men as gay men ignoring AIDS and Civil
Rights in a shocking number of films is.
As compared to the real gay sex of Todd Haynes and Greg Akari films,
this looks like thought police homosexuality, as sincerely as it is done. This film proves that even gay sex is more
than just about intercourse, something the many failed Gay New Wave films sadly
forgot except for the explicit sex, which would have given many critics of this
film a heart attack.
And what about the criticism that this film is
Marxist? Well, Marxists would say in
any such respect, it was not Marxist enough, while the extreme Right Wingers
who make the claim (as if they knew what they were talking about to begin with,
which they do not) know full and well this is not just a film about “gay
cowboys” and is so intelligent that it is a threat to their supposedly tough
and invincible, but really fragile dogma.
They are using homophobia and a faux “pro-Capitalist” position of
Neo-Conservative types (always in words, but never actions from people who do
their best to destroy the economy versus taking the “Rockefeller Republican”
stance of having a strong one) to stop a wide audience from seeing the film,
because part of the story is about people working hard to build a life and the
right to do that, certainly something not restricted to gays or any other one
The problems in the film come when Lee obviously has no
idea what he is doing and the most-clever aspects of the material often go over
his head. This created some
unintentionally funny moments that would not be obvious, though the evolution
(or de-evolution) of Anne Hathaway’s character is done badly in structure and especially
makeup. The most blatant obvious
problem is when she is at her oldest, her chest looks (in true late Joan
Crawford style) like two gravity-defying footballs that contradict several
script points, but I would argue that Lee always has had trouble with female
characters, though McMurtry (the truest author of the film by auteur standards)
is the opposite. Directors like Martin
Ritt, Herbert Ross, Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer and even early Jonathan
Demme would have fared better, but this film landed up with Ang Lee and that
ultimately prevented it from becoming an all-time classic it should have
been. Considering the producers and
creators got everything right otherwise, including Michelle Williams, Roberta
Maxwell, Peter McRobbie, Anna Faris, Linda Cardellini, Scott Michael Campbell
and David Harbor. Lee still did his
job, but much more as a journeyman at best and the film feels it more often
than most people seem to have caught.
Still, he lucked out and it is easily his best film by default, though
it still feels like shades of Roberto Benigni.
The anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image is a bit of a
disappointment, with some detail limits and Video Black issues not in line with
how good this looked in 35mm prints.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, A.S.C., A.M.C., creates a very visually
rich series of compositions, and when things become deceptively simple, a new
meaning is brought out of the narrative.
That makes it one of the visually strongest films of the year, so too
bad the DVD was not up to snuff in this respect. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is good, showing off the somewhat
minimalist score by Gustavo Santaolalla that does an interesting job of
capturing the feel of the time period between the 1960s and 1970s the film
takes placed, hovering around the kinds of Country, Pop and even Soft Rock
forms of the time, right down to the recurring theme song.
Too bad this was not in DTS, especially since there are no
audio commentaries. Extras does include
four featurettes: one about being a cowboy, one on Lee, one on the
screenwriters and one on the making of the film in general. Obviously, much more can be said and just
may be said in a later edition, but the film exceeded expectations and will go
down as a minor classic if nothing else.
Brokeback Mountain hit a nerve because it arrived at a low point
in U.S. history when individuality is talked up and desecrated at the same
time. Don’t let apprehensiveness make
you miss this film if you have not seen it yet. You deserve to see a film this good.
- Nicholas Sheffo