Sunday, June 17, 2012

Retro Review: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.  This particular edition of Retro Reviews also acts as my contribution to The Queer Film Blogathon being co-hosted by the fine folks at Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr.  And please remember as you are reading the following that: a) It was written just after the release of the film and therefore several years before the death of its star, Heath Ledger; b) It was written while George Bush was president and before the more open and hopeful administration of President Obama, though the ultra conservatism written about in the review still rears its ugly head; c) There may be spoilers ahead, in case that is something you care about.  Now on with the show...


The sky is deep and daring, with its pale blues turned dark vortexes of storms and its white clouds swirling with the anticipation of disaster.  The frontier lain out in front of us, like the ghost of John Ford haunting his lost God's country of old.  These are the archetypal images that flooded the lens of legendary western auteur, John Ford, in most all of his films.  These are the same images that now grace the camera of Taiwanese-turned-Hollywood filmmaker, Ang Lee.  With Ford they were mighty, manly images, with Lee, they are again mighty manly images, but, unless you've been living somewhere beyond the reach of TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, the internet and your blackberry, you know full well that these mighty, manly images are vastly different than Ford's - or are they.

The story, taken from Annie Proulx's 1997 New Yorker-published short story and screened up by western icon, Larry McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana, starts out in the bitter lonely wastes of Wyoming dirt roads and soon leads to the cold even lonelier mountaintops of the Rockies.  It is in these crags that Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two cowboys, find more than just a trail and a song.  The time is 1963 and the place is the wintery peak of Brokeback Mountain.  In these days - and nights - of sheepherding and coyote watching, Jack and Ennis find a closeness that probably surprises them even more than it will assuredly surprise middle America (the heartland movie-going chunk that Focus Features is inexplicably going to try to sell this film to), although I am sure the soccer moms of Nebraska will be rather surprised - and knowing the conservative climate of the country these days - rather pissed off.

It is just this ugly newfound ├╝ber-conservatism of America that takes this beautifully wrought love story and metamorphoses it into something much more important, and possibly historic even - a litmus test for tolerance in America.  As our Bush-wacked nation takes ten steps backward in the areas of tolerance, freedom and open-mindedness, and as droves of homophobic men, many otherwise reasonable and intelligent, are refusing to even see this film, Ang Lee, along with a pair of very daring, and one might say in a career defining moment, actors in Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, bring us one of the most intense love stories ever put onto film (gay, straight or anything else), as well as the perfect stepping stone for the broadening of the new right-leaning American mentality.  But enough politicking, you say?  On with the film?  Well okay, for this film is not just a mere socio-political bulwark, but a mesmerizing work of cinema from any and all angles.

Rusty, sad pick-up trucks stand in for the horses of Ford's legends (at least until they hit the mountain tops), but with taciturn, half-mumbled cowboy cadence still intact, Lee's doomed lovers take to their lives with some sort of mislead sense of this is how things are and this is how things must always be.  It is an angered tension that fluxuates between the forlorn yearning and false machismo of these two men - both bewildered by the lust (and eventual love) that has overtaken them upon Brokeback Mountain.  There is no seduction.  There are no words spoken.  There is just an embrace in the cold night and then passion takes over.  A rough, wild, angry passion.  "I ain't queer." Ennis exclaims the morning after their first mountaintop trist.  "Neither am I." Jack responds.  What follows are decades of loveless marriages and children for both of these men (with wives played by Anne Hathaway and Ledger's real life wife Michelle Williams), interrupted only for the occasional "fishing trip" back to Brokeback Mountain.  This was a time and these were places where to be queer was to be less than a man.  This was a time and these were places where to be queer could mean certain death.  This was a time and these were places where to be queer was never an option. 

What Brokeback Mountain is - at the deepest part of its core - is a film about the contradictions between the constricting closet of internal self-imposed shame and the wide open spaces of an America that was supposedly built upon God, compassion and equality.  It is this unfortunate truth that keeps these men apart for life - a life that could have been spent together.  Even Jack, the slightly more comfortable-with-himself of the pair, puts forth the idea of getting a ranch together and spending their lives with each other - only to have the idea shot down by a pre-programmed Ennis.  It is this very - as Wilde put it - love that dare not speak its name that keeps these men from sharing a life together.  It is this pre-Stonewallian (although such rampant intolerance is sadly still very much alive and well in these conservative post 9/11 days) society that forces these men into loveless, doomed-to-failure relationships.  It is society that gives the beauty of this love story its tragic overtones.

Finally, near the end, it is Ennis we see, a broken lost soul, sitting at the kitchen table, listening to Jack's father drawl on about his son's wasted life, and it is in Ledger's face that we see a man who has just seen his empty life flash before his eyes.  It is at this moment that Ennis - and we through the incredibly powerful performance of Ledger - finally realizes he has wasted his life away.  It is in the final moments of the film, just after an emotionally destructive, yet resonantly touching scene between Ennis and his now grown eldest daughter, that the inner turmoil of these two men finally explodes upon the screen in a quiet heartbreaking way.  In half the shot we see a postcard of Brokeback Mountain tacked up beside a pair of shirts hung on a single hanger.  The other half of the shot peers out the window of Ennis' trailer.  It looks out onto an empty desolate lonely world.  These final few moments are possibly some of the most emotionally draining moments ever put onto film.  In fact - I must admit - that even now, days after seeing the film, I am welling up with tears just writing these words and thinking of those last moments.  

Lee's Brokeback Mountain plays as a triumph of wills for all those involved in its long creation.  From Proulx's original writing, to McMurtry & Ossana's re-tooling, to Lee's sharply subtle direction, to Ledger & Gyllenhall's intrepid performances.  Political powderkeg or not, Brokeback Mountain is, not only Ang Lee's greatest cinematic achievement yet, but also one of the most beautifully tragic love stories ever told.   It is a film that most certainly will not be forgotten in the annals of film history.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 12/04/05]


Dave Enkosky said...

This was such a beautiful movie. I was weeping at the end.

Kevyn Knox said...

I still well up just thinking about it. The two most emotional performances of the decade were Ledger's here and Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy.

Caroline said...

Fantastic review, Kevyn. I still haven't seen this movie but you make it sound so moving and well-wrought that for the first time I feel like I should change that. Thanks so much.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx. Yes definitely a film everyone should see. So many blow it off as "just a gay movie" (several otherwise forward thinking friends have done just that) and that is a shame.

Yvette said...

I wrote about this film as well, Kevyn. Didn't want to read your review until I was able to fix my computer glitches (with my daughter's help) and post my take just now.

I love this film and I was hoping I wouldn't have to defend it and thankfully I don't.

Enjoyed your review. I had the same reaction to the film as you did.