Brokeback mountain is well-casted, beautifully acted and amazingly subtle. Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams and the entire cast provide breathtaking performances. This is a movie that stays with you for hours, days, and even weeks after you see it. Although it is popularly referred to as 'the gay cowboy movie', this picture transcends sexual orientation and has a widely universal undercurrent; one that makes it a story of love, passion, and loss.
I encourage everyone who is interested in a great love story, fine acting and breathtaking cinematography to see this film, it is more than worth it!
However, in the hype surrounding the film, those interested would be wise to look at the book. There is much more depth here than in the film, much more about the interior workings of the main characters and what they must endure. This is ultimately not a love story, as the marketing has been spinning the film, but rather an expose on the dangers and drawbacks of living in the closet. For the purposes of this story, Annie Proulx has juxtaposed two diametrically opposite cultures in the American psyche - the gay culture and the cowboy culture (although history is, as it often is, in fact rather different from what the Hollywood-created current remembrance of it is). One comes to wonder at the resistance that all characters seem to have for breaking free of their bonds; ultimately, none of the relationships are satisfying, and there is an emotional desolation as wide and spare as brush land and prairies of the American West.
The lead characters meet while working for the summer as wranglers and watchers over herds. They form a bond that renews at regular intervals during their lives, lives that go on to other, more traditional and socially acceptable settings. Each gets married, each has children, each embarks (in one way or another) in a working life that would seem to preclude the other, but yet the tie that binds them draws them together again on a regular basis.
The closet theme is heightened in the lead characters, but in fact serves as a metaphor for readers who might not fit in that particular closet - we all have skeletons in our closets, it seems, and in fact, we all have our own closets in which we hide and live out part of our lives.
This theme is played in out in several scenes of the film - Ennis Del Mar finding his shirt intertwined with Jack's shirt in Jack's closet, which Ennis then proceeds to put into his own closet.
The last scene is perhaps the most powerful of all, drifting to a final image. Ennis' daughter, having announced her marriage plans, drives off into the dusty plain; Ennis is living in isolation in his own trailer which has next to no furniture (his daughter comments that he needs a chair); and the very final shot is of a closet door, kept closed until Ennis is alone, with a view of the mountains in the far distance just outside the window beyond.
In terms of overall cinematography, this is a beautiful film. Ang Lee's direction has provided wonderful panoramic views of the mountains and the plains, the not-so-wild west of America, mid-century. This is a world very different from either coast - the trends of the cities in New England and California have little effect on life here, which goes on generation after generation with an unrelenting sameness.
Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, fresh from his role as a marine in 'Jarhead') and Heath Ledger (whose film 'Casanova', playing at the same time in the same cinema in my town, cast him in a very different role) play the leads of Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, two down-on-their-luck wranglers who get a summer job camping out with sheep herds in the mountains - the kind of 24 hour/7 day-per-week job that virtually nobody wants. Jack is the extrovert, whereas to call Ennis an introvert might win the Oscar for understatement. At one point, Jack points this out, after a conversation that only lasted for about a minute.
Jack Twist: 'That's more words than you've spoke in the past two weeks.'
Ennis Del Mar: 'Hell, that's the most I've spoke in a year.'
Ledger's portrayal of Ennis is remarkable in that Ennis seems to be almost inarticulate. Everything is said in a grumble, a low-level, low-syllable-count manner. Gyllenhaal's portrayal of Jack as the ants-in-his-pants, high-energy bronco buster cowboy is also very enthralling. Jack's passion for many things comes through, and through the film we come to discover (as Ennis comes to discover) that this passion comes with a high price.
Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams play the wives of Jack and Ennis, respectively. Both want 'regular' lives, and both discover there is more to their husbands' relationship than fishing-buddy friendship in different ways. In some ways, the film reminded me of another film, 'Same Time Next Year', in which a couple gets together on a regular basis while maintaining stable, family relationships elsewhere. However, there is a price to be paid for leading such double lives, and we see this manifested in different ways in the lives of Ennis, Jack, and their wives and children. Again, the issue of the closet comes into play.
Of course, the big 'issue' for the film is homosexuality and homophobia. That this takes place within the almost-sacred genre of the American Western also adds to the heightened interest - the mythology of the American cowboy being a super-macho figure has already been developed as a gay stereotype by such groups as the Village People and what sociologists might call costume-culture communities. The unspoken secret that rarely made even a mention on Hollywood screens was that cowboys, being isolated much of the time, and in male-only communities when they did have company, almost certainly had a higher incidence of same-sex expression than we have come to believe through the mythology.
Ennis and Jack do put physical and emotional expression to their passion and to their love for each other, but societal expectations and personal feelings (what some term internalised homophobia) work to keep them apart and leading separate (and dual) lives throughout the twenty-year span of the film.
There is no happy ending to this film - I left the cinema with a feeling about as desolate as the dry and dusty plains shown in many of the scenes. I found bits of the music score coming back to me for days afterwards, and each time this happened, I would feel a bit more sombre, and a little bit lost for words. The original themes by Gustavo Santaolalla and Marcelo Zarvos are very well done, and this is a soundtrack I mean to get.
I won't predict that it will win the best picture Oscar, but I am not surprised it is one of the odds-on favourites for winning.