Sunday 6 December 2015

Movie Review: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

A lifelong love story between two cowboys, Brokeback Mountain breaks new ground as a mainstream, high quality production sensitively portraying a same-sex affair. Director Ang Lee sets the societally impossible relationship against a magnificent backdrop of rugged, big country western scenery.

Wyoming, 1963. Drifting cowboys Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are hired by gruff businessman Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd his sheep for the summer in the valleys around the stunning peaks of Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is an orphan, a self-sufficient introvert and a man of few words. Jack is the son of a middling rodeo performer, and is more open and emotive. As the long days of summer drag on, Jack initiates physical intimacy between the two men. Although initially reluctant, Ennis eventually responds, and the men engage in a sexual relationship and develop a strong bond of love.

At the end of summer the men reluctantly go their own ways. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and starts a family. His life is a constant struggle against poverty. Jack tries his hand on the rodeo circuit, and in Texas he meets and then marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a rich farm equipment magnate. After years apart, Jack reinitiates contact with Ennis, and the two men reignite their affair on semi-regular camping trips, always keeping their affair a secret. But while Jack longs for a more committed and long-term relationship, Ennis cannot come to terms with the idea of an isolated life dedicated to Jack.

Spanning 20 years, Brokeback Mountain is a grand romance. An adaptation of the Annie Proulx novel, the film masterfully captures the aching, persistent agony of a love that can never be public, and the deep-seated conflict of carrying an illicit affair over two decades while pretending to function in a relatively loveless marriage. Lee adopts a slow, deliberate pace, allowing the love between the two men to gradually flourish in the isolated terrain, and then exploring the long lasting impact of a physical and emotional connection that will not die.

Sex between the two men is depicted in frank terms as mountainside passion erupts between Ennis and Jack. There are also honest sexual scenes between the men and their wives, although as the film unfolds Lee makes it clear that the pure joy of love only exists between the two men.

The script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana seeks the moments of drama in real human terms. The film builds slow-burning conflict through a lack of symmetry in the relationship. Jack needs Ennis more than Ennis needs anyone, and as the years progress, the lack of full reciprocity generates building tension. Jack cannot see why the two men cannot establish a life together at an isolated cabin, away from any questioning eyes. Ennis, always emotionally reserved, cannot come to terms with a domestic and isolated life surrendered to any one endeavour.

On the family front, the challenges are also unequal. Alma cares deeply about Ennis and their children, and immediately senses his drift when Jack reemerges in their lives. Lureen is a businesswoman, her father's daughter, her marriage a box that needed to be ticked, and barely notices Jack's physical or emotional presence or absence.

Beautiful as it is, at 134 minutes the film does start to sag, with a few too many shots of valleys, mountains and thousands of sheep. The later scenes between the two men, now adults carrying the luggage of middle age, struggle to add much that is new. Lee reclaims some momentum in the final 30 minutes when the inevitable separation becomes more permanent, and love's true impact is captured in a moving visit to Jack's childhood home.

The performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are filled with subtleties, and the actors fearlessly dive into the often taboo territory of men displaying unconstrained physical lust towards each other. They only stumble slightly during the more theatrical moments of altercation, the arguments and physical scuffles often appearing marginally forced.

Brokeback Mountain is a challenging and ultimately rewarding film, a heartfelt ode to the power of love as it withstands erosive forces to stand tall and dominate life's landscape.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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