I’m probably one of the dozen people left in the country who actually wanted to see this movie while it was in theaters but did not. I finally got around to it because a friend dropped off the DVD. She fell asleep while watching it and has not yet seen the entire thing; when one of my sisters saw what I was watching she said, “Oh, the boring movie.”
So the movie and I didn’t exactly start off with the greatest of introductions. Still, I managed to get through the movie over the span of two days, watching it in pieces.
As usual with my movie reviews, this one won’t be short. Also as usual, if you haven’t seen the movie, there are spoilers within.
I’m a big fan of Ang Lee. From The Wedding Banquet to Eat Drink Man Woman to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee consistently – and artfully – presents situations that show the repressed, restrained, or hidden emotions that people have and the consequences that ensue.
It’s no different with Brokeback Mountain, although the execution of this vision isn’t as fully realized as in some of his other work.
Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, October Sky, Donnie Darko, Jarhead), a sometimes rodeo rider, and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger, 10 Things I Hate About You, Casanova), an itinerant ranch hand, are assigned to herd sheep up Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) in 1963. Ennis is a man of few words while Jack is more outgoing but still has only a handful more to say than Ennis. The two of them develop a friendship on the mountain that turns physical one cold night – a scene that is almost violent and has zero words but sound enough to carry the scene. The rest of their stay is spent minding the sheep and each other. When Aguirre decides to bring the herd down early, Ennis is upset, and it is clear it is not because they will be missing a month’s pay.
Once down from the mountain, and after agreeing that this was a one time experience, both move on with their lives. Ennis marries his high school sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams), while Jack meets and marries Lurleen (Anne Hathaway, who breaks away from her Disney pictures by letting loose with the top half of her birthday suit). Their lives are not particularly happy lives, and four years after their stay on Brokeback Mountain, Jack sends Ennis a postcard, suggesting that they meet again. Ennis agrees, and thus begins a series of intermittent meetings over the years between the two, where they tell their wives they are going fishing and yet never bring back any fish. Although the timing of their meetings was not consistent, this did remind me a bit of Same Time, Next Year.
Alma has known from the time Jack first appeared on their doorstep that more was going on than fishing, having seen the two men kissing on that first meeting after four years apart. She suffers along through the years until she finally divorces Ennis. The Lurleen Jack married – a rodeo queen in her own right – changes into a dour business woman, and both work for her father, who obviously hates Jack.
The women (and the children each have with their husbands) do not have big storylines, nor do we know much about them other than what happens in vignettes while the mens’ storylines is developed. I’ve seen complaints about this from people, who feel that these womens’ stories should have been told as well; however, this story clearly belongs to Ennis and Jack and what their lives are like because they cannot, as Jack suggests, set up a ranch together. Ennis tells Jack a story about two “tough old birds” who did just that and were beaten to death later; he also tells Jack that his father made sure the boys saw at least one of the dead bodies, and that for all Ennis knew, his father could have done it. The film, once away from Brokeback Mountain, is about the compromises that the two make in their lives to be able to see each other from time to time, and the longing that people apart can have for one another. It is also about loss: of ideals, of time, of opportunity, of love.
There’s no happy ending here, and the ending could have dissolved into the typical melodrama that movies of this type tend to have, but Lee resists that. Instead, while it is emotional, it is not something for which we cannot suspend our disbelief.
Both the leads give strong performances, although Ledger’s almost-mumbling at times makes it very difficult to understand what he is saying. Gyllenhall is wide-eyed and idealistic, Ledger withdrawn and afraid of both his feelings and what society might think. Of the women, Williams’ is the more powerful performance, but only because Hathaway’s role is both limited. None of the other characters who make an appearance are fleshed out beyond the meeting stage for us, the audience, but it hardly matters because it is not their story, either.
Calgary and other places in Alberta sub for Wyoming, and the vistas are breathtaking. The soaring mountains, wide open spaces, and clear waters are a sharp contrast to the drab towns where the men live their day to day lives, and I suppose someone writing an academic paper could posit that this is to show the purity of the mens’ love for one another, or that real love is beautiful and not being true to onesself is dull and dingy. But it could just as well simply mean that these are the places the two go because they are the places that remind them of that first summer, which put everything in motion.
Would I watch it again? Maybe. It’s a hard movie to get through, since I, like many other people, know that sense of longing. It also falls into what I call the “chick flick” ending syndrome – where one or more of the main characters must die, and the ending is not happy (see Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise, or Steel Magnolias). In fact, much of this movie is not happy due to circumstance and timing. Overall, I would rate this three of four stars.
Brokeback Mountain is rated R for nudity, sexuality, violence, language, and the sight of a sheep guts. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.