Brokeback Mountain

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Brokeback Mountain
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) first meet when they go to Wyoming rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to find work. He hires the pair to spend the summer in the mountains herding his sheep and the taciturn cowboys head off to do their jobs. A friendship soon develops between the isolated duo, then something much more in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx short story, Brokeback Mountain, first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1997, winning high praise and the National Magazine Award. Scripters Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana optioned the work from Proulx and spent years trying to get the story produced as a film. The controversial subject matter was a hard sell until director Ang Lee got on board and brought the picture, with the help of his stars Ledger and Gyllenhaal, to fruition.

Brokeback Mountain” is about the relationship that developed during Ennis and Jack’s long, lonely sojourn in the mountains of Wyoming. Their summer together became a friendship, first, then something much deeper – love. “You know, I ain’t no queer,” Ennis tells Jack after their first rough sexual encounter. “Me, neither,” replies Jack as they discuss what they will do when back in civilization – get a steady job, marry and have kids. They part ways with Jack heading back to Texas and Ennis marrying his sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams).

Four years later, Ennis receives a postcard from Jack saying that he will be in Wyoming and they should get together. Jack met and married rodeo queen Lureen Newsome, the daughter of a well-to-do farm equipment dealer, and has prospered while his friend struggles from day to day. When the two men meet again, after so many years, it as if it were only yesterday and sparks fly once again. They know now that they can’t stand such a separation again and begin to get together several times a year for “fishing trips” on Brokeback Mountain.

These trips become more important than their marriages with both Ennis and Jack having tougher and tougher times relating to their wives. It’s not a sex thing, though there is that, but one of love between the two cowboys. But, it is the 1960’s in America’s conservative heartland and such a relationship is fraught with danger for the two men should their secret become public. While they put up a good front to most, Elma and Lureen learn differently as they watch their husbands slip from them to each other.

Brokeback Mountain” is a touching love story between two men who have formed an unbreakable bond with each other that will last for their lives. While this subject may turn off the more homophobic moviegoer, this is not what I would call a “gay movie.” Sure, it’s about two men and their physical attraction to the other, but it is far more about the love that begins between two people and intensifies despite their long times apart. This is a daring and emotionally complex piece of work that defies being stereotyped or pigeonholed.

While both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal give exemplary performances, it is Ledger who comes out tops in this remarkable film. The 26-year old Aussie native first came to notice in America with his engaging performance in 1999’s “10 Things I Hate About You” with Julia Stiles. Since then he has become a star but, until now, has not earned the reputation as a true thespian. His performance as Ennis Del Mar has changed that repute. Ledger gives one of the best, most mature performances of the year that will make the world sit up and take notice. With his jaw always clenched, Ennis speaks in gruff mutters but there is a passion within the man that spills out on the screen. Ledger may not win an Oscar for his role (though he may surprise) but he will be on many best-of lists this year. I know it’s tough to talk about break through performances for someone with Ledger’s filmography, but this is the case for the actor. It will be interesting to see what he does in the years to come.

Jake Gyllenhaal is no slouch as Jack Twist and the actor proves, once again, that he is one of the talented young actors in Hollywood today. The relationship that develops between Jack and Ennis is believable and heart-felt.

Supporting cast, though small, is well populated. Michelle Williams, as Ennis’s wife Alma, gives a strong performance as the loyal spouse who discovers that her husband has lived a lie for many years. Anne Hathaway, as Lureen Twist (nee Newsome), is also credible as she goes from happy newlywed to cynical and bitter as she watches Jack slip away from her. She is especially potent later in the film when she conveys bad news, in the form of a lie, to Ennis. Randy Quaid shows that his roots are as a serious, dramatic actor and he gives his tough rancher, Joe Aguirre, much nuance in a small amount of screen time. Anna Faris does a wonderful comic turn as the motor-mouthed friend of Lureen, LaShawn Malone

Director Ang Lee has, long ago, proven himself to be a world-class filmmaker and he brings his assured experience to the helm of “Brokeback Mountain.” Lee garners topflight performances from his entire cast and marshals his crew with a deft hand. It helps that he has an excellent script to work with and McMurty and Ossana deserve praise in turning a 55-page short story into a richly told feature length screenplay. The film looks great, too, with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto using the magnificent backdrop of Wyoming and Texas to very good affect. Key makeup artist Manlio Rocchetti and his team deserve high praise in doing something that few films succeed in – making the characters age according to their years. It always bugs me when you see a film that spans 15 or 20 years and the characters look, in the end, as they did in the beginning. Not so in “Brokeback Mountain.”

There is much buzz in the gay community about Brokeback Mountain” but the average Joe should not let that stop him (the hers out there won’t have a problem) from seeing a fine, moving love story that dares to be different. A good film should be able to transcend cultural and social mores and lose the viewer in the story with both empathy and sympathy and Brokeback Mountain” does it. I give it an A-.

Ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger, "The Brothers Grimm") is a closed and cautious young man planning on marrying his girlfriend Alma (Michelle Williams, "The Baxter") in the fall when he takes a summer job herding sheep along with rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Jarhead"). But something unexpected happens - Ennis falls, hard, for Jack and the two cowboys' longing for each other reaches over state lines and decades.  Fishing trips offer occasional fulfillment when the two men reconnect on "Brokeback Mountain."

Director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hulk") once again impresses with his seeming command of such disparate material as his early trilogy exploring the relationships between fathers and their children ("Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet," which also featured a gay protagonist albeit in a romantic comedy, and "Eat Drink Man Woman"), Jane Austen ("Sense and Sensibility"), American suburban angst in the 70s ("The Ice Storm"), Chinese martial arts and comic book super heroes.  Now he's broken new ground with Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove") and Diana Ossana's ("Johnson County War") adaptation of the Annie Proulx short story about two men wearing that most macho of labels - the American cowboy - who experience a profound love in a taboo time (the 60s) and place (Wyoming and Texas), and all but the most rabidly homophobic should feel the heartbreak.  Both Ledger and Gyllenhaal ring emotionally true, but Ledger, playing the more closed down of the two men, reaches to depths unimaginable from previous performances.

Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid, "The Ice Harvest") instructs Ennis to overnight at the camp, but insists that Jack pitch a tent and stay out overnight with the sheep after having experienced large losses the year before.  The two men have little in common, meeting at mealtimes which Ennis prepares over campfire, but Jack's amusing show biz streak comes to the fore and he begins to break through to the taciturn Ennis.  When empathy for Jack's overnight discomfort keeps them together one night, Jack's move to warm them both quickly overheats and combusts.  The disemboweled sheep Ennis finds the next day, killed while the men were having sex, symbolizes both Ennis's guilt and his prediction for their future.  Ennis, you see, was taken by his dad at the age of nine to see the corpse left in the wake of a vicious gay bashing, one that may have been at his father's own hand, and it is this childhood trauma that guides the man's refusal to live with Jack.

When the men separate, disparaged by Aguirre for the way they've bided their time, it is four long years before they reconnect.  Ennis marries Alma and struggles to support her and their two little girls in Wyoming while Jack is scooped up by the daughter of a rich Texan and has a son.  Ennis's bottled up joy at hearing from his old friend disturbs Alma, who quickly gleans the truth and divorces him, yet the aging loner still resists Jack's entreaties to establish their own ranch.  Jack, frustrated by his lover's unwillingness to pursue happiness, begins seeing other men, but can never shake Brokeback.

Ledger, clenching his jaw and rumbling the occasional remark through lips stretched into a tight line, has completely disappeared into this role.  He's taken on a look and sound that resembles Michael Rooker ("Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer") and his performance is all the more amazing when contrasted against his upcoming comedic turn as "Casanova."  Perhaps his greatest achievement is that although he spends large portions of the film away from Gyllenhaal's Jack, he wears Jack's presence around him like a cloak of sadness.  Gyllenhaal's Jack is a less tortured character, having clearly recognized a preference for men before meeting Jack.  Gyllenhaal makes Jack a fun-loving guy who has learned how to compromise in life, but his projection of love for Ennis is no less strong.  Both actors enjoy some of their strongest scenes apart, however, intercut scenes of confrontational Thanksgivings.  Ennis visits Alma and her new husband and she finally unloads her deep-seated hurt at knowing a truth which he reacts violently to.  Meanwhile Jack explodes after years of being emasculated by his father-in-law L.D. (Graham Beckel, "Northfork").  (Later, Ennis will have a scene parallel to this scene with Alma with Jack's wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway, "Ella Enchanted") that works below, rather than above, the surface, a beautifully written piece.)

There is a wealth of supporting players here, with Williams having the greatest depth as a hopeful and happy young woman who gradually becomes ground down by her unspoken rival.  Hathaway is an odd casting choice as a Texan, yet she does surprisingly well portraying a brassy daddy's girl, all dark roots and cigarette smoke.  Roberta Maxwell ("Last Night") and Peter McRobbie ("Spider-Man 2") as Jack's aging parents quickly paint a picture of his childhood  and Anna Faris ("Scary Movie 3") is amusing as another clueless bride, too busy with her own chatter to note her husband's straying eye.  Linda Cardellini of the "Scooby-Doo" movies is good as Cassie, a woman who tries to woo Ennis and Kate Mara of TV's late, lamented "Jack & Bobby" hits and misses as Ennis's eldest daughter Alma.  (Mara's last scene with Ledger is strongly reminiscent of "The Beautiful Country's" closing moments between father and son.)

As usual, in addition to guiding noteworthy performances, Lee has led a beautiful production. Judy Becker's ("Garden State," "Thumbsucker") production design transports us to the hard scrabble life of rural 1960s Wyoming and the middle class comfort of selling farm machinery in Texas.  Rodrigo Prieto's ("21 Grams") cinematography is crisp, yet finds the romance in a herd of sheep reflecting moonlight and the pathos of the worn wallpaper in an old farmhouse.  Gustavo Santaolalla's "21 Grams") mournful score is gentle and just right.

"Brokeback Mountain" is certainly not what most would define as 'queer cinema,' but instead a most contemporary Western, a thing of raw, aching beauty.  Even the Marlboro Man may have been moved.

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