Here’s a fun fact you might not have known about me. I grew up in house full of women. It was my mother and my two sisters, and when I was a young boy my grandmother moved in with us as well. Being surrounded by women, it’s probably no surprised I was exposed to more than my share of romance stories. A good romance is one that puts two individuals in a situation where a real and visceral connection is made, an emotional and physical attraction that’s nearly addictive in its intoxication, and then makes thing interestng by putting obstacles between the individuals. On that level, friends, let me say that Brokeback Mountain works. The individuals just happen to be gay shepherds. That’s shepherds, not cowboys.
The year is 1963. Ennis Del Mar, a downtrodden and stoic ranch hand, finds a job herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain along with former rodeo rider Jack Twist. The two bond on the long nights up on the mountain and eventually fall in love. Their summer is cut short due to their boss seeing them together and they go their separate ways, Ennis marrying his long-time fiancée Alma while Jack tries to break back into rodeo, only to meet his future wife, Lureen. The men start their families but never manage to put their feelings for one another behind them, and meet after four years for a fishing trip that becomes the first of many. As much as Jack wants to build a life for them together, Ennis refuses, afraid of the potentially lethal backlash that could occur and claim both their lives. Over the years, it becomes clear that neither man is anywhere near happy in their daily lives, and the only thing that keeps them going is those trips together up to Brokeback.
This is a story that is steeped in atmosphere. From the scenery to the aesthetic of cars and clothes, we not only see the passage of time, but we can feel it. The way in which the years roll by, while glossing over things in places which I’ll address later, helps contribute to the film’s atmospheric density. This is also helped by good writing of very human characters, which leads me to the acting.
Miss Hathaway is an actress I’ve yet to dislike in a role.
All four lead actors in this film are absolutely stellar. Michelle Williams gives real emotion to her portrayal of the wife fully aware of her husband’s true passions, and when we see her come to the full realization of her rejection, Williams shows us the depth of the wound without saying a word. Anne Hathaway, showing just how talented she is when she’s not being a princess, is a woman who gradually moves more distant from both her husband and the person she was when they met and fell in love, a very real change that unfortunately comes over more people than it really should. Jake Gyllenhal inhabits Jake with electrifying passion while the late Heath Ledger’s quiet intensity and silent angst power through the film. When these two are together, the chemistry is palpable and their awkwardness about the situation feels just as real as their feelings.
Enough gushing, as Brokeback Mountain has a few issues and I wouldn’t be able to call myself anything approaching a “critic” with a straight face if I didn’t point them out. As much as these actors give their all, the movie moves at such a pace that we really don’t experience a great deal of depth in them. Oh, they’re developed and they don’t feel as laughably two-dimensional as some others I could name, but there’s a lot more that could have been done with them if this hadn’t been a film. In other words, we’re not in the shallow end of the pool but we’re not swimming in the ocean, either. Brokeback Mountain probably could have surmounted this problem in the form of a novel, or an HBO mini-series. I doubt PBS would have touched the tent scene with a ten-foot pole. Insert pun about poles here, insert pun about inserting things here, we’re walking, we’re walking. (Sorry, Cleo, I love that joke).
While I brought it up facetiously, I would like to point out some of the hypocracy that Brokeback Mountain alludes to in terms of the attitude towards homosexuals. Imagine, if you will, that gender roles were reversed in our world. Homosexuality is the norm, and people only couple with others of the same sex. Now, imagine you fall in love with someone of the opposite sex. The impulses, emotions and conventions that many people in this world take for granted are suddenly taboo, and you are under threat of death every single day because people can’t wrap their minds around your “strangeness”. That’s the sort of world gay men and women live in every hour of every day. Now, some places are better than others, things are improving in terms of accepting these people as, well, people, but for every pride parade or happy common-law couple, there’s someone living a lie because Bubba Ray is so eager to please Jaysus he keeps a hangin’ rope in his shed next to the special belt he uses to beat his wife. And Bubba Ray’s a stockbroker who lives in a suburb and goes to church every single Sunday in a $10,000 suit. But I digress.
Brokeback Mountain is a film about passion. The vistas and scenery captured beautifully in this film are powerful, sensual images that are the perfect backdrop for people falling in love. You couldn’t ask for a more evocative setting. The score perfectly fits the deep melancholy and quiet tragedy of this situation and the lifes of these people as they slowly but inevitably unravel. Director Ang Lee is able to balance the surrealness of some scenes with very real emotional power in others, driving home the fact that these are all human beings involved in this, and none of them are unholy abominations bent on undermining the sanctity of marriage or utterly destroying the individuality or another person. They make decisions, they try to be happy, they screw up and try to deal with the aftermath of their mistakes. There’s a reason this film won three Oscars, in the areas I just mentioned.
At the end of the day, Brokeback Mountain isn’t telling us anything we haven’t heard before. The power and beauty of it, however, is the unashamed way in which it approaches its subject matter and the unflinching way its point is driven home. More than being a rather extreme interpretation of the ‘bromance’ and a taut, well-acted if somewhat glossed-over tale of star-crossed lovers and rule-abiding rebels, Brokeback Mountain is a cautionary tale. It’s one that’s been out there for some time, but that doesn’t stop it from being a damn good one. The lesson to be learned in this, dear reader, is this: Life is too short to be miserable, and if you are in a situation where you are mired in misery every day, where you are being forced to try and be someone you’re not, get out. Get out while you’re still alive.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.