Despite its recent flurry of Golden Globe nominations, Brokeback Mountain is perhaps doomed to be forever nicknamed, “the gay cowboy movie.” Watching the final moment of Ang Lee’s film, you realized what a reductive nickname that is sort of like referring to Million Dollar Baby as the “the film about the chick who boxes.” Indeed, like Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winner, Brokeback Mountain might be described as unrelentingly naturalistic. Emotions are deeply felt throughout, but they are repressed and there are no histrionic displays of feeling. The big moments in the film happen as quietly as the ordinary ones do.
Based on Annie Proulx’s short story and co-scripted by western writer Larry McMurtry, Brokeback Mountain tells its most unusual love story over the course of two decades. What makes the film powerful is its ability to be simple and complex at the same time. Questions about love, friendship, identity, masculinity, sex and gender are challenged but mercifully never answered. Lee takes his time here, but the results are more compelling than his last western, the deadly slow, unfocused Ride with the Devil. Lee creates a country life that has genuine color without resorting to condescending caricature. Against the lushly filmed countryside, Lee has drawn wonderful performances from his talented cast.
Anchoring them all is Heath Ledger, whose performance fulfills the promise displayed in his powerful (if overlooked) work in his small, pivotal role in Monster’s Ball. Ledger is astonishingly good, creating a subtle, multi-layered character. He is well matched by his onscreen paramour, Jake Gyllenhaal (Jarhead). While the story belongs more to Ledger, Gyllenhaal creates a different, equally engaging character. The story would fall apart if the actors’ chemistry as friends and lovers weren’t 100% believable, and both actors are up to the task. Women, as you might guess, have less to do here, however Michelle Williams (Dawson’s Creek) is heartbreaking and utterly believable as Ledger’s neglected wife. Williams shows real range and offers her best performance since the overlooked comedy, Dick. Linda Cardellini (ER) has a few nice moments in a small role, though I wished she’d switched parts with Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries), who plays Gyllenhaal’s wife. The ingenue Hathaway is miscast as a tough-edged, all-business Texas rider. Her performance isn?t necessarily bad, but misguided, and she does little to fill in the gaps of her somewhat underwritten role.
Brokeback Mountain is likely to be referred to as “groundbreaking” or “controversial,” but it is to the film’s credit that at its heart, it is just an old-fashioned love story. The uniqueness of that love story is never treated preciously or simplistically, it just exists with all of its complexities intact. The only drawback to the film is that it may be too quiet for some tastes. Lee risks losing the audience by taking his time to build the story. Occasionally, subplots appear and then meander off without explanation or fulfillment. The payoff for the patience this story requires does not come full circle until that final moment, when the heartbeat that has pulsed beneath the surface of the entire film finally bursts.
Leave A Comment