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Don’t Fence Me In: Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain”

Don't Fence Me In: Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain"

Even on the eve of “Brokeback Mountain“‘s release, it’s difficult to separate the actual movie onscreen from the media attention that’s been swirling around it for months. Is Ang Lee‘s effective tragic romance to be viewed as just another epic love story unfolding under a panoramic azure sky or as a groundbreaking mainstream cinematic evocation of homosexual love? While it’s beyond doubtful that “Brokeback,” even if it proves to be a multi-Oscared box-office success, will open the floodgates for a bevy of studio-financed gay-themed movies, its very conception seems to have created a heavy social burden that the film simply may not be able to carry. And I say this with the utmost respect and generosity of spirit because “Brokeback Mountain” is nothing if not modest–an even-tempered, strong-willed, matter-of-fact drama that has more in common with the evocative American landscapes of John Ford than the bland do-goodism of the American independent film scene. “Brokeback,” by sheer lack of comparable contemporaries, feels fresh, yet Ang Lee’s sturdy craftsmanship does well by not assuming grandiloquence. What’s most lovely here is that, unlike all the chatter surrounding the film’s journey from production to festival to eventual release, Ang Lee lets the story speak for itself.

A heart-aching trudge through two decades of sexual longing and social repression, the script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on a celebrated 1997 short story by E. Annie Proulx, begins in 1963 Wyoming, as the sullen, gruff Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) first meets the wide-eyed, devil-may-care Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) when they both apply for the same summer job as ranch hands. Both boys are sent together into the mountains to tend to a herd of sheep, and pretty much everyone who’s going to see the film by now knows that as the days and weeks pass, a mutual attraction develops. This all finally explodes one cold night in a bout of aggressive sex. It’s a daring, and for some viewers, alienating, move to unabashedly convey the boys’ carnality well before they are able to express their deeper feelings for one another; if the rest of the film feels slightly more sanitized, it’s because the script retreats somewhat into convention. Ennis and Jack go their separate ways, and each further repress their homosexuality by marrying local women (the always wonderful and deceptively fragile Michelle Williams and a slightly less persuasive, ill-coiffed Anne Hathaway). They are reunited years later, when Jack tracks down Ennis at his home, where he has fathered two children. Their passion reignites, resulting in a clandestine two-decade affair as “fishing buddies,” which is never allowed to blossom into anything more than an illicit mountain sojourn for fear of dire homophobic consequences in the towns.

While it would be too easy to wholly embrace “Brokeback Mountain” as an important turning point in American movies, it would also be too simple to casually brush it off for its inability to live up to the outsized parameters that have been placed around it. Ang Lee’s film, with its inevitable, inexorable motion, its festering, growing heartburn, is undoubtedly strong stuff and can stand on its own two feet without the hype machine propping it up. There’s also no denying the emotional investment of its two leads: With their wildly different physiognomy, the large-featured, muppet-faced Gyllenhaal and the thin-lipped, beady-eyed Ledger make for a fascinatingly juxtaposed couple–Jack’s yee-haw stabs at masculinity seem insufficient when pitted against Ennis’s implosive self-abnegation. Ledger’s Ennis feels particularly lived-in, and his performance, a nicely modulated series of grimaces and hesitant smiles, keeps the film anchored in place, never letting it stray too far from its oppressive social landscape.

If “Brokeback” doesn’t quite achieve the crystalline eloquence of Lee’s “The Ice Storm,” it’s still a reminder of how adept the director is at surveying how sexual repression can define the inadequacies of any given time period. “The Wedding Banquet” ultimately found a celebratory common ground in its homo-hetero, Chinese-American contemporary culture clash, and “Sense and Sensibility” likewise followed its Jane Austen template to harmonious matrimony despite witnessing the damaging effects of the inability to express passion in 19th-century England. As in “Ice Storm,” “Brokeback”‘s lessons are more hard-won, and it similarly gets at the gnawing fear that some truths may stay bottled up forever. Ang Lee’s stringent approach is somewhat undone by a pandering touch here and there (Gustavo Santaolalla‘s dull, guitar-plucking score undermines some of the later moments, and the final scene, which should be quietly agonizing, is diluted by a misguided bit of casting), but “Brokeback”‘s cumulative impact makes all the hyperbole definitively earned.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]

Gyllenhaal and Ledger in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Take 2
by Kristi Mitsuda

Hype is a hard thing to overcome. Given the critical buzz building to near fever pitch via rapturous receptions at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, I partially blame the inordinate weight of expectation on my lackluster response to “Brokeback Mountain.” I wonder how I might’ve reacted without the preconceptions: If, for example, my prior knowledge had been limited to the shorthand high-concept designation “gay cowboy love story” — a phrasing with unavoidably campy connotations — would I then have been more moved by the sensitivity of Ang Lee’s description rather than emotionally underwhelmed?

Like another in recent memory, “Saving Face,” the specificity of this queer representation set amidst a particularly suffocating cultural milieu deserves singling out and praise: A watershed moment in terms of cinematic history? Hell, yeah — but a pioneering spirit alone does not a great movie make. While exciting in its positioning of two gay men at the heart of an epic romance — a deliberately blatant shattering of tradition –“Brokeback” is strangely pedestrian in its otherwise by-the-book following of conventions. As in straight counterparts “Cold Mountain,” “Titanic,” and “The English Patient,” it sketches the relationship in with broad strokes (lustful longing and a single sex scene), depicts events with that Oscar-hearkening brand of tasteful restraint, and ultimately results in tragic separation.

The brilliant recasting of ill-fated lovers makes socially conscious and relevant a genre often historically distant even as the familiar framework itself renders the proceedings rather dull. Interestingly, it’s this generic sameness that structures media discussion about “Brokeback”‘s cultural value, circling as it does around the film’s potential to break out of the limited box office of the art house and into the mainstream of blockbuster three-hanky weepers. Ensuing grandiose implications that it could “humanize” gays for red-state audiences seem a bit — call me cynical — idealistic and somewhat disingenuous (does anyone believe the truly bigoted will slap down 10 bucks to watch Ledger and Gyllenhaal make eyes at each other, much less be converted to open-mindedness by the end?). For my part I’m simply glad “Brokeback Mountain” establishes one not insignificant point: that homosexuals deserve humdrum Hollywood movies same as the heteros.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]

Take 3
By Nick Pinkerton

A Village Voice cover illustration with a bevy of accompanying think pieces (and oh, the tactless puns) is testament enough that Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” will hit theaters carrying the official stamp of Importance. Duck and cover; this will be the movie that launches a thousand reviews offering callow “red state-blue state” platitudes. But what’s onscreen? A “period” romance (1963 to the early Eighties) whose forbidden throb, swollen by Gustavo Santaolalla’s score, has a lugubrious, antique quality that’s rather close to E.M. Forster. A vista-intoxicated western with no dirt under its fingernails, whose characters don’t seem to interact with their environment save to broodingly vogue in front of epic National Geographic wallpaper. A bantam-weight actor’s showcase for marble-mouthed Heath Ledger and cutie-pie Jake Gyllenhaal, who, in the unconvincing “over-the-hill” get-up of the film’s latter chapters–an oversized coat, paste-on moustache, and throw-pillow paunch–looks as thoroughly 24-year-old as an actor ever has.

Competently crafted pap bolstered by social import, in short. Star-crossed lovers–the much-touted “universal” aspect of the story, which might just as well mean “hackneyed”–harassed by provincial homophobia: a Romeo & Romeo counterpart to the Juliet & Juliet “Boys Don’t Cry,” though “Brokeback” is much too stately (that is to say, much too Ang Lee-directed) to embrace the rapture of outsider sexuality with the rough-and-ready recklessness that “Boys” had. Sure, Ang throws us some furtive touchy-feely, but “Brokeback”‘s shorthand for liberation involves a boy’s-life montage of the principals — Whoo-wee! — cliff-diving in the buff. I’m obtusely reminded of the skinny-dipping interlude in Merchant-Ivory’s film of Forster’s “A Room with a View” — take heart, Ang: James Ivory’s job may open up any day!

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor.]

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