Brokeback Mountain

  • Ang Lee
  • 2005

Ang Lee recovers from the unfair critical bashing he received for Hulk (2003) to deliver another masterfully composed yet slightly over-long Western-drama. It is a film in which every scene and sequence has meaning and every moment counts towards a later revelation or character motivation. Attention has been drawn to its central love affair between two men, but to allow that to preclude any judgement on the film would be to attribute controversies which needn’t exist. Rather, this is a superb rendering of a time and a place through image and thematic recollection.

Heath Ledger portrays Ennis Del Mar, a barely conversational rancher who arrives in Signal, Wyoming looking for summer work herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. His assigned partner is Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) a comparatively lively rodeo cowboy from Texas. Stuck alone for months on the isolated mountain, they soon fall in love and Ennis succumbs to Jack’s sudden advances and they have sex. Their affair continues and they are soon sent home by their suspicious boss (Randy Quaid). Back in their respective states, the pair spend four years apart assuming their encounter is over. Ennis marries his sweetheart Alma (real-life partner Michelle Williams) and they have two girls. Jack meets and marries feisty Lureen (Anne Hathaway) despite the clear objection of her rich Father, who Jack reluctantly joins in the prosperous business of selling farm equiptment. After four years, Jack manages to contact Ennis and over the next 20 years, they meet up to three times a year for “fishing trips” on Brokeback Mountain, despite the wreckage that is left at home.

…his face is a map of hurt and bottled up anguish

Lee invests the first hour of the film to Ennis and Jack’s growing relationship, which pays off enormously later. After their initial separation, proceedings are played out episodically, resembling highlights. Ennis and Alma marry, then have kids then hear from Jack within only a few scenes. It is testament to the actors that we can skip two years in one cut without qualifying subtitles or fade-outs and they can convey with just one look or movement everything that has happened in the intervening narrative timeline. Michelle Williams is simply superb as the most sympathetic character on display. Her numbness and confusion is evident in one scene where she stumbles into the wrong back alley at the wrong time. Hathaway shines bright initially and has the mannerisms of a middle-aged, strong-headed mother as the film progresses. Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack captivates with his sorrowful eyes and hearbreakingly idealistic hopes, though his character’s journey is brought to an indifferent and undignified conclusion. It is Heath Ledger, though, who steals the film by saying little and feeling everything. His face is a map of hurt and bottled up anguish and his final breakdown in front of Jack (where he suddenly turns from a potentially violent aggressor to a destroyed, emotionally broken boy) is startling. The young actor has not been this good since his brief but memorable turn in Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001).

What gives the later scenes their potency is the evocation of Jack and Ennis’ first meeting, and the photography of Rodrigo Prieto (who has a cameo as a Mexican prostitute) and the music by Gustavo Santaolalla and Marcelo Zarvos are all superb. Almost every frame could be frozen and hung on your wall like a piece of art. The guitar notes (as sparse and passionate as the characters and setting) pulls at the heart-strings and provides plenty of emotional codas that bring you (along with Jack and Ennis) back to Brokeback.

If there are any problems they are mainly to do with the length of the picture and a callously handled twist in the final fifth of the picture. Also, Jack’s story is handled with slightly less care and interest wanes in his plight. But this is almost overcome with the astonishingly powerful final shot in which Ennis makes a final declaration with a beautiful piece of dailogue that says everything you need to know about a lost soul without the one person who made him who he was.

Finally, unlike Hulk, Ang Lee’s determined and unique use of structure and image has found an ideal setting in an original and affecting motion picture that shows a director in full control of every facet of filmmaking.

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