A few days after the annual Oscar nominations announcement is still a time of bliss, when justice is possible. No matter how many personal favorites have been overlooked, there inevitably remain contenders imbued with uncommon cinematic beauty. Maybe those creative triumphs can win and decades of the Academy too often defaulting to the tired, superficially noble option will no longer be a reliable forecaster. Anyway, I wrote this review upon the original release of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It appeared at my former online home.
In the rare instance that you see the name of screenwriter used prominently in the promotion of a film, you know the studio is going for something specific. In the case of Brokeback Mountain touting the contributions of Larry McMurtry is likely meant to connect the film to his various acclaimed westerns. But this is not the McMurtry of Lonesome Dove, this is the McMurtry of The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. He has an uncanny ability to fill out characters and draw us close to them by showing us the scattered pieces of their lives. He doesn’t tie everything together, but gives us the means to do it ourselves. The film doesn’t stop to tell us about these characters with momentum clogging exposition, and yet, by the end, we know them.
The other author connected to this film is Annie Proulx, who wrote the short story on which it is based, has made it clear that the shorthand description of this film as “the gay cowboy movie” is wholly inaccurate. These characters are not cowboys, she has said, but are instead “two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids.” It’s an important distinction and one that cuts to the reason the film is so effective. The film is not about cowboys, but rather about two young men who have bought into the cowboy myth, and are trying to forge their personal identities on the basis of that rugged persona.
Jake Gyllenhaal initially seems a little off as Jack Twist, one of a pair of men earning their summer wages by looking after a flock of sheep on the the titular geographic landmark. He is too soft, too eager. He doesn’t match our perception of a man finding his future on the frontier as effectively as his cohort Ennis Del Mar, played with a rugged mumble by Heath Ledger. That mild disconnect between actor and role is actually perfect, as the character he portrays is role-playing himself. These two men are fighting to find themselves, define themselves. In the process they find one another, romantically, sexually and deeply. It is that connection that truly sets them on the path to self-discovery.
For all the hand-wringing over the supposed sensational elements of the film, Brokeback is not a treatise or a manifesto, a modern version of a Hollywood message movie. It is a small, sad story beautifully told. It may not be a booming box office success when it starts to book theaters outside of the major cities, but I think that will be due as much to the slow, considered pace of the film as anything else. Director Ang Lee presents his story matter-of-factly, resolutely refusing to punctuate or underline individual moments. He has supreme confidence in his material and his actors to create the emotional resonance of the piece. Lee captures it and emerges with a film that is breathtaking in its honestly stated heartache.