It may be breaking new ground in terms of how some audiences react to it, but Director Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” itself is at once both a classic American western and a sweeping old fashioned romance that will pull at the heartstrings of all but the coldest of people. With an astonishingly delicate and respectful touch, Lee pulls off the tricky feat of expanding Annie Proulx’s powerful short story in scale and scope, all the while bringing more heart and realism to the table.
Proulx’s story worked because it seemed to almost refuse to be political – and yet calling it a fantasy was too much of a stretch because the tale was written in a style that was very gritty, real and with utterly believable consequences. The result was a simple, powerful and universal fable of a beautiful but tragic love affair between two ordinary people in an unforgiving society – the fact that its between two men became only a minor detail more than anything else.
The film takes it even further into the territory of wide appeal by incorporating more everyday realities into the tale, and handling the subject matter with great care and restraint – all without undermining the emotional power of the story. Another director could’ve easily turned this into, for lack of a better term, a ‘queer movie’ – one with an agenda whether it be political, exploitative or merely titilation. Lee never falls into said trap, avoiding anything too overt on any of those fronts. Some could say its too soft (or even frigid) a touch, but by doing so it gives the story more emotional resonance for all audiences.
The strong story and masterful direction is only the start of the film’s strengths. Performances are superb all across the board, each character is given time to shine and we explore their many facets. Jake Gyllenhaal finally shows us strong dramatic chops as the more emotionally driven, optimistic of the pair who must contend with the frustration of a love who’s more withdrawn and restrained than he is.
Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway do great supporting work as the pair’s wives – both very different characters who service the story in different ways yet each actress is always up to the task. The two are given short shrift in the original story but here are developed and add richness to both the plot and the two male characters on which we’re focused.
The real showcase here though is Ledger who underplays his role to perfection. He makes a physically imposing rough around the edges figure whom many would immediately write-off as a simpleton, and adds whole levels of complexity, vulnerability and depth throughout. His character, who spends most of the film looking slightly constipated and/or mumbling, ends up being the film’s richest – a man struggling to deny who he is to both himself and everyone else, even as that secret destroys the happiness of both him and everyone around him. All these performances are very physical as well, with their tone and looks saying a lot more than their words – its a tricky act to pull off and some audience members may not read into it as much as others.
There’s very careful attention to detail – as the characters age throughout the story there’s a few convincing changes (for the most part) in make-up, hair, dress and lifestyle. All this is offset with the breathtaking visuals showing off the harshness of both low-income dusty American townships and the picturesque natural landscapes of the Rockies. Rodrigo Prieto’s Oscar-caliber cinematography is off-set with a soulful low-key score of mostly simple guitar notes and twangs that seem so inherit to the western genre and yet add another dimension to the sense of soulful longing at the story’s heart.
Those worried about explicitness on screen needn’t be. Both guys do flash their bums briefly (in both cases whilst washing themselves in stream water), both girls do flash their breasts, and sex scenes are limited to two straight, one gay and in all cases only a few seconds long at most and all with clothes on. In fact its surprising how sex is treated with such kit gloves here – those three scenes are all key to the plot, and the gay romance as such is limited to only a few scant scenes of the two guys hugging or kissing (albeit in such a physically violent way that it removes practically any erotic value).
Lee always wants to make sure this is seen as an emotional love story rather than a physical one so those audiences going to see it for ‘man on man action’, you’ll be somewhat disappointed. On the other side of the coin, the only thing homophobes will get squirmy over isn’t what’s shown but rather the mild implication that you’re probably a closeted gay guy if you take your wife from behind more often than from the front.
If there’s a complaint to be had by some it won’t be so much the gay romance subject matter as the pacing. At 134 minutes its a long movie that deliberately takes its time with some very slow scenes that are allowed to unfold at a very natural pace. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, especially up front, and many scenes involve characters saying one thing whilst expressing a whole lot more with their eyes or body language.
No better example of this is the entire first act which, with the exception of two short scenes with Randy Quaid as their employer, is simply Jake and Heath on the mountain herding sheep and getting to know each other through several painfully restrained conversations. This act is the film’s simplest and most engaging, yet it never convincingly explains what it is that pulls these two together short of loneliness inherit to the job and their blooming friendship. Once they’re together it also has little place to go in terms of exploration, aside from Jack’s growing resentment of Ennis self-sabotaging their chance to have a life together.
Great sweeping romance films are few and far between these days, even rarer are films made with such care and obvious affection. Sadly whilst it’ll be dismissed as the ‘gay cowboy’ movie by many, they will miss out on what’s one of the few times you’ll ever see a film adaptation that’s at least as good as, and in my opinion much better than, the acclaimed story its based on.
It doesn’t matter what your orientation or relationship status in life is, ‘Brokeback’ is a tale of romance that’s never properly expressed and doesn’t come with a simple ‘happily ever after’ conclusion. At times it stretches its credibility or short changes a few things which should’ve been explored, and it could’ve been a little shorter. Still, the more I look back on it the richer and more rewarding an experience it seems – how often can you say that about a film these days.