April 3, 2006
Now that the hype surrounding Brokeback Mountain (2005) has started to die down, one can get past all of the superlatives heralding Ang Lee’s film as a classic and all of the jokey puns on the film’s title and concentrate on what makes it really work: the love story between two men. Much was made about it being the first mainstream movie about gay cowboys but it was also an achievement for Lee that he was able to bounce back from the commercial and critical disappointment that was Hulk (2003).
In the summer of 1963, a ranch hand named Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) meets a rodeo cowboy named Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) when they are hired by a rancher (Quaid) to watch over his herd of sheep on Brokeback Mountain for the summer. They spend days out in the middle of nowhere traveling through postcard perfect country – rolling green hills, rivers of fresh spring water and forests of tall trees – all beautifully shot by the film’s cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.
Ennis and Jack gradually get to know each other. Jack is the more gregarious one while Ennis is a man of few words but opens up the more time he spends with his talkative partner. It isn’t necessarily what they say to each other but the silences between them that speak volumes. For example, in the first six minutes of the film no words are spoken between them. Instead, they exchange plenty of looks, sizing each other up. Even once they get out to Brokeback Mountain little is said until gradually they get to talking.
Their summer job ends abruptly and the two men go their separate ways. Ennis gets married to a beautiful, earthy woman (Williams) while Jack goes back to working rodeos and ends up marrying a cute rodeo rider (Hathaway) from Texas. Even though the two men are involved in their own conventional marriages with children you can see it in their eyes that they’d much rather be together like that summer in ’63.
Years go by before they get in touch again. They meet for a fishing trip and it’s like no time has passed. There is still that intense closeness. Because of the prejudices of others, Jack and Ennis can never be together all the time – only every so often on their “fishing trips.” The film chronicles the years that go by as they continue this trend and how it affects them and their families.
Heath Ledger has gone from teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) to such diverse roles as the ones in Lords of Dogtown (2005) and The Brothers Grimm (2005). This performance may be his finest yet. It is a very internalized one. Ennis doesn’t communicate very much verbally but rather through physical gestures and by his eyes. It also doesn’t hurt that Ledger has the rugged good looks that are ideal for this role.
Jake Gyllenhaal turns in yet another excellent performance as a hopeless romantic stuck in a marriage with someone he doesn’t truly love. One gets the feeling that the time away from Ennis affects him the most but it is only because it is visible in the way he acts and in his eyes. He’s the one who pushes hardest from the two of them to discard their traditional lives and be together all the time. However, as the film progresses, we begin to realize that their time apart hurts Ennis just as much – he just keeps it bottled up inside.
There is a touching intimacy to Jack and Ennis’ relationship. It isn’t just physical, it is also about companionship. When you spend that amount of time with someone you get to know them really well. It is the kind of relationship that changes the course of their lives. Ultimately, Brokeback Mountain is a tragic love story – even more so because we get to know Jack and Ennis so well. We become emotionally invested in their lives and we know that they can never be together in the way that they would like. Ang Lee’s film is one of those rare ones that actually does live up to its hype and definitely worth a look.
“On Being a Cowboy” takes a look at the cowboy camp that the actors went through so that they could get an idea of what that kind of life was like and portray it convincingly on camera. Ledger actually grew up on a farm and had plenty of experience riding horses. Whenever possible the actors did their own riding but any dangerous stunt work was done by doubles.
“Directing from the Heart: Ang Lee” is a love fest for the director. The cast praise his direction and talk about how much they admire him. Before doing this film, Lee was tired and burnt out from all of the films he had done and was ready to take a break but was drawn to the story of Brokeback Mountain.
“From Script to Screen: Interviews with Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana” features the two screenwriters talking about their first reaction to Annie Proulx’s short story that first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. Lee calls it “an epic short story.” McMurtry and Ossana used every sentence in the story in some way and expanded on it to make a feature length film.
Finally, there is “Sharing the Story: The Making of Brokeback Mountain” that originally aired on the Logo channel. It follows your typical making of featurette that mixes interview soundbites with clips from the movie. The actors talk about what attracted them to the project and how they trained for their roles. This is a nice if not superficial look at the movie.