16 January 2006

current cinema: Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain
this review may also appear in the Wissahickon

starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway
written by: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, from the short story by E. Annie Proulx
directed by: Ang Lee
R, 134 min, 2005, USA

That Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, an epic mixture of a western and a love story, is the prohibitive favorite for a Best Picture Oscar says a great deal about how far we have come as a society from the days when Rock Hudson kept his sexuality a secret out of fear that to do otherwise would ruin both his career and his life. That it is jokingly referred to as "the Gay Cowboy Movie" in major publications[1] says a great deal about just how far we have to go.

Before we go any farther, it would probably help to declare the background I bring into the film. I have never, not in high school or college or now, ever been employed as a cowboy or ranch hand of any kind. It's a symptom of growing up in New England, with it's noticeable lack of wide-open spaces, that's kept me from spending any meaningful time on a horse or roping livestock. Had my childhood been a little different, perhaps I would have spent some time on the open plains, but alas I have not. I have, however, seen my fair share of westerns, so I get the general idea.

To be sure, this is clearly the big controversial film of the year, as homosexual love stories in mainstream cinema are rare enough, but for it to be so "graphic" and to star two masculine movie stars in Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, ensures it will be brought to the forefront of the public attention. For the average straight male, this should be a bit of a difficult ride, if the hype is to be believed. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that the sex scenes between Ledger and Gyllenhaal aren't nearly as revealing as the scenes between them and their respective wives. It is perhaps Ang Lee's sly joke that shortly after the first gay love scene (containing mostly darkness, struggling, and heavy breathing) he gives us a good look at a sheep[2] that's been ravaged by a wolf. It's as if he's asking us to consider which image is more difficult to take in. If we're honest with ourselves, the answer is probably the dead sheep. It is safe to say that the number of people who would find the images in Brokeback Mountain difficult to digest is far fewer than the number who would have problems with the subject matter itself.[3]

More important than any trumped-up controversy is the film itself, which is nothing if it is not captivating. With stunning landscapes photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, a haunting, evocative score by Gustavo Santaolalla, and Ang Lee's gentle touch, this is a truly beautiful film. Coming from a Chinese background, Ang Lee understands the type of personal repression that's so inherent to this story. A great deal in this world is unspoken, yet understood. Ledger and Gyllenhaal's characters are under this assumption that they alone carry this burden, but many of the people close to them either know, or at least seem to know, and with that knowledge comes a great range of emotions from anger to sympathy. At times you wish they had the courage to confide in those closest to them, that perhaps they would be able to find some redemption or comfort, but the potentially negative consequences weigh too heavily on their minds. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) has a vivid memory from his childhood of a gay man was brutally murdered, so any risk of that, no matter how small, is a risk he is unprepared to take. If there is any small bit of comfort for Ennis, it is that time may provide him relief. Perhaps not in Wyoming just yet, but in time.

Much has been made of the performances in Brokeback Mountain, and they are universally good, but the turn by Heath Ledger is stunning. This is a mortal lock for an Oscar nomination in any year, regardless of content or politics. He steals the entire movie as he absolutely disappears inside his character. There's a tendency to assume he's just channeling Clint Eastwood, but he brings so many more layers to the performance. Every so often an established actor comes from nowhere to shock us with actual acting ability above and beyond anything they seemed capable of. Anyone who tells you they thought Heath Ledger had this in him is a damn liar. Jake Gyllenhaal, for his part, is sort of a microcosm of his entire career--good in one scene, average in the next, and a bit all over the map. His Jack Twist is the ying to Ennis' yang, but he seems to be spending too much energy showing us how good he can be instead of just being good. If the film has a weak link, he may be it.

Long story short, this is a great film, a heartbreaking subversion of the western by one of the world's greatest working directors. While some may assume that Hollywood's liberal bias is pushing the film forward this award season, it is a worthy heir to the Best Picture title and a piece of cinema you can ill afford to miss. It may be ten minutes too long and one of the lead characters may be simply good as opposed to great, but that's no reason to avoid seeing it. And neither is the subject matter, unless of course you hate seeing the entrails of sheep. If that's the case, just cover your eyes and it'll be over before you know it.

[1] Including Film Threat, Time, and several others.

[2] If you're aware of my running joke about intercourse with sheep, please get it out of your system. Feel better?

[3] If you can watch the average R-rated film without blinking at content, then you can watch this. If not, may I suggest therapy?


Nate said...

I wanted to be a gay cowboy for most of my childhood. Father wouldn't hear of it, of course, so i decided to be a half black/ half jew lesbian instead. Can't wait to see the film. Good review for a straight irish prick.

lucas said...

that must have been a difficult childhood for you

Rachel said...

excellent review...i will be seeing it this week even if i go myself

johanna said...

r: oh...sorry i saw it w/o you then (tho it was worth it, in my semi humble opinion)

l: loving the top ten list. mine would only differ slightly. you can expect a review tomorrow eve

n: we did go to the rodeo every year for yer birthday. inbred cowboys and bad honky-tonk music...what more could you ask for?

johanna said...

Here's a funny case for monogamy.