Brokeback Mountain Review
In Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, there is a long and beautiful sequence where Steve McQueen and Robert Preston, playing father and son, visit an abandoned railway station. With only minimal dialogue, the scene evokes a lifetime of words unsaid and dreams torn down. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain expands this moment into a whole cinematic register and the highest compliment I can pay the film – certainly the best I’ve seen this year – is that it’s not remotely disgraced by the comparison. It’s as eloquent a film about love as I’ve seen in a long time and even while being in some respects the ‘gay Western’ of notoriety, it has the compassion and emotional maturity to be a hell of a lot more. With it, Ang Lee triumphantly reclaims his position as one of the finest directors currently working.
Ennis (Ledger) meets Jake (Gyllenhall) in Wyoming in 1963 when both of them are hired to look after sheep for a summer on Brokeback Mountain. Becoming friends, the two men suddenly find themselves overcome with a physical yearning for one another and they turn into lovers. Over the course of the next twenty years, they maintain an uneasy, sporadic relationship while trying to lead separate lives marrying, respectively, Alma (Williams) and Lureen (Hathaway).
Lee denies that the film is a Western and it’s easy to see his point if one considers the Western as a series of endlessly repeated signifiers and narrative devices. There are no black hats and white hats, no stagecoaches or Indians, no gunfights. But some signifiers are undoubtedly present; men in Stetsons, living rough by campfires and riding horses through stunning mountain scenery. Indeed, the leading characters are cowboys – the fact that they look after sheep is neither here nor there since, historically, the designation ‘cowboy’ came to mean a ranch worker who had a specific responsibility for the livestock and not simply cattle. But they are cowboys in changing times, when the cowboy lifestyle was already romanticised but work was scarce. Ennis is forced to take whatever casual labour and stock work he can find while Jack rides in a rodeo and sells used cars.
However, on a deeper level, the film is a Western in a very specific set of genre traditions. What the genre has always been able to do is link character with landscape, suggesting connections between the wide open spaces and both the freedom possible for a man and the limitations placed upon him by social expectation. Landscape also functions in the classic Western on a symbolic level; John Ford’s use of Monument Valley is the most famous example along with Peckinpah’s concept of Mexico. Brokeback Mountain operates in this symbolic way, suggesting the wildness of the passion which overtakes Jake and Ennis, the remoteness of their love from the society in which they live and the isolation which results from this. It’s also their ‘place’, a permanent emblem of their love and everything which they will spend their lives looking to recapture but never find. Ang Lee’s use of space is very significant and double-edged; the spacious countryside of Alberta, standing in for Wyoming, offers freedom and opens up with possibility, but the equally open streets of the small towns suggest emotional aridity and the closing off of human contact.
Equally, the film’s concentration on constructs of masculinity is in a direct line from the Hollywood western – films ranging from John Ford’s Stagecoach, Howard Hawks’ Red River, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Anthony Mann’s Man of the West and Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks have been fascinated by the nature of maleness and relationships between men and if they steadfastly remained strictly heterosexual, it’s not much of a push to see that Brokeback Mountain is simply extending this into a comparatively new area. Sam Peckinpah is once again a significant influence here. I think Peckinpah would have loved this film and understood it completely – there are scenes of nostalgic sadness and underlying bitterness between Jake and Ennis which remind you irresistibly of that opening scene between Coburn and Kristofferson in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid and the closeness of the relationship is merely a logical step forward (albeit a huge one which Peckinpah wouldn’t have contemplated) from that between Pike and Dutch in The Wild Bunch or even the ageing gunslingers in Ride The High Country.
It seems to me that this is the key to understanding Brokeback Mountain. Yes, it’s a film about lovers destined never to find happiness and this is something which I’ll discuss presently. But more than that, I think it’s a film about a relationship between two men, raised to be reticent and self-contained, who are ill-equipped to understand feelings when they go wildly out of control. They spend the next forty years trying desperately to understand what happened and their increasingly sporadic meetings do little to either explain it or extinguish the flame which burns in them. Indeed the flame burns stronger than ever, separation serving to feed it – and it’s not hard to think of Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton in this context. Jake and Ennis are friends as well as lovers and the film suggests that the love merely serves to deepen both the positive and negative connotations of what it means to be friends – the closeness, the mutual reliance, a sense of need and resentment and the inevitability of drifting apart.
Of course, Jake and Ennis go beyond merely being friends. Most close male relationships exist within highly defined boundaries – for example, hugging is acceptable but kissing is not – and what the two men do on Brokeback Mountain goes a lot further. I don’t think either man is, strictly speaking, ‘gay’ as both maintain sexual relationships, of a kind, with women but their sexual feelings for each other are far stronger than those they feel for their respective female partners and both their marriages fail in different ways. Homosexuality is not the only significant element however. The sex which they engage in is as all about pure animal need and can easily be understood as such. What is revolutionary about the film is that this is normalised; if not for the first time in American cinema, certainly with a power and truth which seems new. It accepts that sexual fulfilment can be found between men as well as between women. The problem which Jake and Ennis have, ultimately, is that their physical lust gets confused with the (unspoken) love which is a part of all close male friendships and the combination is what dooms their relationship – it literally fucks them up. Jake and Ennis can never find happiness together – they can’t share the ranch about which Jake fantasises – but it’s not simply because society would forbid it, it’s because there’s something in them which can’t untangle the mess of emotions they feel. When, in the final scenes, Ennis cries over Jake’s blood-stained shirt it’s a catharsis because in some fundamental way, their relationship finally makes sense.
The relationship is presented within a vividly realised social context which has the unmistakeable stamp of an outsider’s perception. Ang Lee’s nationality makes it possible to see America anew and when he shoots a small town or a snow-capped mountain, it has an intense visual passion which suggests someone seeing it for the first time. There’s a vivid sense of the injustices in society which condemn hardworking people to a life of bank loans and squalid two-room apartments and the homophobia which hovers around the corners of the story – rarely stated explicitly but erupting in a memorable story told by Ennis about his father taking him to see a gay rancher who had been lynched – is a natural outgrowth of this. Lee and his writers have a potent understanding of the ways in which the American small-town can snuff out the potential for happiness. This is clearly portrayed in the other relationships which the film examines. A good deal of time is spent on the marriages between Ennis and Alma and Jake and Lureen. Ennis and Alma live in a poverty which seems to gradually suppress their feelings for each other and when they break up, it’s almost a relief to both of them and their children. Jake and Lureen exist in a similarly stagnant relationship, one in which money may be present but affection and understanding are not. In Ennis’s case, it seems that the emotional reticence ingrained within him has extended far beyond his love for Jack to destroy his wider life – there’s a great scene with a potential partner played by Linda Cardellini where she indicates that she’s done everything to try and break through that reserve. Yet there is love in these men’s lives, apart from what they feel for each other. Jake has his son while Ennis has his daughters, and there is a beautiful scene at the end of the movie where the father and daughter find a mutual understanding. It’s partly times that change – 1960s giving way to a more liberal climate – and partly a hard-earned wisdom which seems carved into Ennis’s face.
It’s this face, supplied by Heath Ledger, which traces the emotional lines of the film. Ledger has been a good actor in the past but this is quite extraordinary and it seems to have come out of nowhere. His performance is a finely etched study in inarticulacy where the use of the eyes is all important to say the things which speech cannot. The use of silence is masterful and it’s wonderful to see a major performance in an American film where non-verbal acting is placed above the delivery of dialogue. It’s interesting that Ledger was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s main competitor for the Best Actor Oscar because the two performances are direct opposites in style. Hoffman dazzles you with how much he does, Ledger impresses with how little. Jake Gyllenhall has the showier role because Jake is a more verbal person and he’s very entertaining to watch but it’s only in the final scenes between him and Ledger where he displays genuine fire and pain. The actresses are all splendid in roles which, in other hands, might be thankless. Michelle Williams has never been better and Anne Hathaway displays a hitherto unsuspected emotional range.
Brokeback Mountain seems a little like a throwback to an earlier age of American filmmaking where pacing was slower and time was given to establish character and setting. This is entirely conscious on Ang Lee’s part and it’s interesting that he has specifically referenced Peter Bogdanovich’s gorgeously slow and contemplative The Last Picture Show in interviews. It’s wonderful to see a major American film in which so little apparently happens but which is epic in its emotional range – Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven is perhaps the closest recent comparison I can think of. Malick’s film was notable for its stunning cinematography and Brokeback Mountain is similarly impressive. Ang Lee’s films always have a very distinctive look – remember the icy chill that Frederick Elemes brought to The Ice Storm - and Rodrigo Prieto’s efforts here are firmly in that tradition. Prieto has been doing wonderful things for a while now - Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Frida are among his credits – but I think this is his best work yet. I also want to mention Dylan Tichenor’s editing which, as was noted by Roger Clarke in a perceptive Sight and Sound article, uses overlapping sound to devastating effect. In praising the film, however, it would be wrong to ignore the three people at its very heart – E. Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Proulx’s novella is just about perfect in its way but the screenplay by the latter two expands it into cinema terms without losing either its elegance or its essence. It’s particularly wonderful to see McMurtry receiving so much credit for his work on the film, a worthy successor to The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove.
Some men have complained that the film made them uncomfortable, presumably because of the sex scene between the two leading characters. Others have found the deliberate pace of the film boring and frustrating. Needless to say, I find both of these reactions completely incomprehensible, particularly the former. While gay audiences may well have a special relationship with this film, you don’t have to be gay to empathise or understand this film, you simply need to be human. In its eloquent exploration of the words left unsaid, the compromises we make and the loss we feel when something beautiful vanishes forever, Brokeback Mountain is a great film about a gay love affair but it is also a great love story for the ages and if you can’t respond to that, then it really is your loss.
Brokeback Mountain may not have collected all the Oscars it was expected to but its DVD release was eagerly anticipated. What we get from Universal and Focus Features is pretty good although I have a strong suspicion that a special edition will be appearing later in the year.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is stunningly good. Pietro’s cinematography is presented to its very best advantage in this image I can’t find anything to criticise – colours are gorgeously rich and full, blacks are deep, the low-lit scenes are as pristine as the bright exteriors and there’s detail enough to die for. The transfer is crystal clear and although the very discerning might spot one or two very small artefacts here and there, there’s nothing to stop me giving this full marks.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is equally good. This kind of film relies on silence and ambient sound as much as dialogue and this track respects that with the surrounds kicking in to immerse you in the various environments. Gustavo Santaolalla’s deservedly Oscar-winning music score sounds particularly fine with the individual instruments given ethereal clarity.
The extras are oddly weightless, especially for a film which has been more discussed and debated than any in recent memory. No commentary is present, unusually for Ang Lee, and the featurettes are quite light in content. “On Being A Cowboy”, running just under six minutes, looks at the training given to the actors to make them convincing cowboys. “Directing From The Heart” is a seven minute look at Lee’s style as a director while “The Making of Brokeback Mountain” goes into a little more detail with interviews from most of the main participants and a voiceover which betrays its TV origins. This runs twenty minutes but doesn’t seem very substantial because everything remains superficial. The interviews with Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana sound more promising and there is a lot of insight into their working process but you’re left wanting a lot more.
The film is divided into twenty chapter stops. Optional subtitles are provided for both the film and the extra features.