Who would have guess that they could make a movie about gay sheepherders and people would flock to see it? Sorry, but that’s about the only Brokeback Mountain joke that I have not heard in the last eighteen months. I will admit that I went into this film with a degree of skepticism, fearing that it would be an earnest, self-conscious “message movie.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a carefully observed study of two sharply drawn individuals in a doomed relationship and how that relationship impacts their lives.
The film begins in 1963 as Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) take a job as sheepherders in Wyoming. Both men are typically reticent for westerners. Ennis is as miserly with words as Scrooge was with money while Jack is talkative only in comparison to Ennis. Still, the picture establishes an unspoken attraction between them early. One night, fueled by loneliness, the cold and alcohol, the two men give in to these feelings. The next morning, Ennis initially backs away but only temporarily.
After the job is finished, the two men go their separate ways. Ennis marries his fiancée, Alma (Michelle Williams) and settles down while Jack returns the following year for the sheep herding job, only to discover that their employer (Randy Quaid) discovered what they were up to the year before and wants nothing more to do with him. He returns to Texas and has (very) limited success as a rodeo cowboy. There he meets his wife, Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and goes to work for her father’s farm equipment company.
When Ennis and Jack do reunite years later, they greet each other with an enthusiasm that does not go unnoticed by Alma, which begins the slow dissolution of their marriage. It takes a long time because her mental software isn’t compatible with the information in front of her, but when years of “fishing trips” produce no fish, she eventually gets the picture.
For his part, Jack wants the two men the buy their own ranch and run it together but Ennis, paralyzed by a boyhood memory of a man who was killed just because he was suspected of being “queer,” wants none of it.
The real revelation here is Heath Ledger’s performance. Not only does he manage to bury his native Australian accent beneath a convincing Western drawl, but his character’s laconic nature requires him to do most of his acting with his eyes instead of his voice, body and face. Gyllenhall is no slouch but Ledger definitely had the tougher acting job
Director Ang Lee, who seemingly never met a genre he couldn’t tackle, from classic drama (Sense and Sensibility) to martial arts (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deliver not only a touching film but one that is beautiful to look at, making maximum use of the Calgary, Alberta, locations which stand in for Wyoming.
Was Brokeback Mountain robbed at last year’s Academy Awards? Having finally seen both this movie and the eventual winner, Crash, I can say that neither film was undeserving of being called Best Picture. I wonder if Brokeback wasn’t a victim of its own success, with every Academy member assuming that it had the Oscar locked so they went ahead and voted for something else. While Crash was the more thematically ambitious film, Brokeback Mountain easily stands as one of the most effective and affecting personal dramas of the last several years.