Love is a force of nature. This is a phrase that will long live in infamy due to the overwhelming popularity and hype surrounding our second “Best Picture” nominee of 2005. Brokeback Mountain has been described as a raw, powerful story of two young men, a Wyoming ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy, who meet in the summer of 1963 sheepherding in the harsh, high grasslands of contemporary Wyoming. The two men form a bond which is unorthodox, yet life-long, ecstatic, bitter and incredibly conflicted. This is the story of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.
The story behind Brokeback originated from the E. Annie Proulx short story about a forbidden and secret love affair between two cowboys that spans most of their lives. The film subsequently has caused a serious rukous in Hollywood due to its taboo subject matter and graphic man on man action.
Brokeback begins as any random sheephearder flick would, with two cowboys, a tent and a few thousand sheep. Ennis Del Mar, played by Heath Ledger, and Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, are the two cowboys sent up to the Mountain of Brokeback to care for the sheep over the course of the summer of 1963. And while everything seemed to be rutine, the two men did not forsee bond that would grow up on the mountain. And subsequently the audience is left in the dark as well. The plot of this film, to say the least, is nominal. When I first viewed the extremely hyped opus to homosexual cowboy-ism, I found myself searching for the plot, searching for the hidden meaning, and ultimately searching for the point to all of this madness.
As the movie progresses from scene one to the final moments, we are drawn into the lives of the two cowboys and the whirlwind of chaos that ensues as they begin to become attracted to one another. And that seems to be the key phrase, “attracted to one another” due to the fact that Brokeback seems to fall short of a true love story. I have not been able to decipher whether it is poor writing or poor filmmaking, but the relationship between Ennis and Jack plays out as more of a shameful infatuation where lust must be fulfilled four times a year rather than a deep, heartfelt love. But upon further review, I was able to see how Ang Lee was trying to deliver the love story; in an almost disruptively subtle manner. And if it had not been saved by the acting, the plot itself would have had no legs on which it could stand alone.
As I previously mentioned, where Brokeback Mountain falls short in the realm of story telling it all but makes up for it with spectacular performances from its leads and its supporting cast alike. Heath Ledger delivers the character of Ennis, at first, with a very shy and somber tone. But as the film moves on, we notice that Ledger places Ennis in the position of being in almost complete denial of what is transpiring with Jack. Ledger’s performance is ultimately one of the best examples of delivering very powerful and raw emotion without the use of dialogue. Jake Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, seems to carry the slow moving dialogue of the film with his character Jack. Jack is the very vocal, annoyingly accepting member of the twosome, and Gyllenhaal is able to mold the character into just that. When you look back at his performance you can’t help but notice that it was moving, but he was possibly pushing too hard to drive the emotions of a mixed up young cowboy. But then again, that over-the-top, boyish enthusiasm that Gyllenhaal displayed in his role was a true embodiment of Jack Twist, and a stark polar opposite of Ledger’s Del Mar.
And while the performances of the two lustful cowboys have been the long touted features of this film, the performances that cannot be overlooked, as they give the movie its depth, are those of Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams. Hathaway, who plays the wife of Jack Twist, steps out of her typecasted role of Disney Princess and delivers a stunningly refreshing and ice cold performance. Her ability to add a serious tone to the lavish and outspoken lifestyle of Gyllenhaal’s Twist adds a realism to the pairing, and validates her as a serious dramatic actress. She alone was the true gem of this flick. Michelle Williams also holds her own very well as the beloved wife of Ennis. She truly delivers a sensational amount of dialogue and shows the stern side of her character who discards her love of Ennis when she discovers the secret love affair between the two men. In my eyes, while the men may get all the publicity, the women of Brokeback truly steal the show with their versatility and grace.
Behind the Scenes
Ang Lee’s film is set on a very scenic mountain range in Wyoming. And one would assume ahead of time that this fact alone would lead to a well displayed vision of nature. One could also make the assumption that Lee would use the amazing landscapes to further enhance the film’s overwhelming theme of the fact that “Love is a force of Nature” by delivering some breathtaking visuals of the spectacular Wyoming mountain ranges. With these assumptions set on the table, Lee has truly failed his craft. I cannot remember a more prime opportunity for cinematographic genius that has been wasted so carelessly. While there are shots of the mountains, both the scenery and the film’s original score fall far short in their ability to add to the tone of the film. This all but leads to the crippling of the audiences ability to extract a worthwhile story from this slow moving, complex work of cinema.
The Final Cut
When I initially thought of how to describe this film, I was overwhelmed by the fact that it was very difficult to understand. Very often a filmmaker will pass off forcing the audience to dig feverishly for the story’s meaning as artistic depth. In the case of story depth, Brokeback‘s story seems to get sucked into a metaphorical abyss. But what saves this film as truly one of the most worthwhile trips to the box office is the performances delivered not only by the two men, but their supporting ladies as well. The ability of this cast to exhibit such an emotional journey across the span of 4 lives will not soon be forgotten as the best of 2005.
Oscar Night Chances
In the end I am placed in a paradox with this film. While I truly believe that it accomplished much of what it set out to do as a work of art, I do not believe that it was the best film of the year. To me a great film is defined by not only its artistic aptitude, but its entertainment value as well. And for the average movie goer, Brokeback Mountain is more likely to confuse than it is to entertain. But then again, I am not a member of the Academy.
The Upside: Stunningly well acted film. Especially on the part of the supporting cast.
The Downside: Bring your artistic goggles for this one, as it does deliver an emotional response, just not anything except instant depression.
On the Side: Ang Lee struggled continually with the sheep during the shoot. Apparently sheep don’t drink from running water, only ponds and dams. Ang tried all day to get the sheep to drink from a stream, but they wouldn’t oblige. He had to give up on the shot.