Simple and honest, director Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, based on a story by Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) is what it’s been cracked up to be: a compelling tale of two men in love with one another. Lee displays good timing, keen understanding and striking visuals.
Adapted for the screen by Diana Ossana and Hud writer and novelist Larry McMurtry, Brokeback Mountain takes place in early 1960s Wyoming, where a couple of cowboys are hired to herd sheep one season. Instead, they fall in love. Lee takes his time before Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) have at it. They mumble, they groan, they scrape, and what begins as a utilitarian alliance becomes a bond.
Denying that they’re queer, they part company when the job ends and, though it is clear that, for both, something within has been awakened, it’s hard to see where this unusual episode will lead. Ennis weds frumpy Alma (Michelle Williams) and has a couple of kids, insisting that their residence be as remote as the stirrings in his soul. Jack heads to the rodeo, kicking up dust, not knowing how to blend in and getting whispered about in pool halls until a fast, rich Texas cowgirl (Anne Hathaway) comes along to ease the strain.
Over years depicted in slow, strumming guitar solos and the stillness of a Western sunrise, they steal away to Brokeback Mountain and, though they do work hard and try to honor their commitments, not everyone is fooled. Neglected wives and children pay the price of their dishonesty.
It is tempting to see Brokeback as too plain and a so-what factor creeps in, yet it’s like one’s first visit to the mountains, working its way into the mind only after the fire’s put out, the tent’s packed up and you’re halfway home. Buried in realistic characters, wrapped in a taut script, the story of Jack and Ennis calls upon the distant memory of a deeply held romance—straight or gay, unrequited or unfulfilled—that can rise without warning; a love, as Emmylou Harris sings on the soundtrack, that will never grow old.
In the most powerful scene, a visit to one lonely, loveless house, Brokeback Mountain redeems its tragic theme: that a single human life has value, that to value is to love, and to love is the nature of man. Lee brings earthly wisdom to a subject that is demanding, relevant and thought-provoking, letting men behave like men, roughhousing, hiding under hats, harboring untold desires and wanting to live happily ever after.
As Ennis, Ledger finally gets serious, letting loose and holding back when it counts. So does Gyllenhaal, whose innocence serves the story superbly, especially in a chilling scene with Randy Quaid—outstanding as a small-minded man. As Alma, Williams is perhaps the movie’s unsung talent, clinging to her expectations until she too can no longer hold it in during a volatile kitchen scene. Hathaway earns her keep in a single, final scene, and others shine, too, as Jack’s parents (Roberta Maxwell and Peter McRobbie), Ennis’s oldest daughter (Kate Mara) and a heartbroken girlfriend (Linda Cardellini).
Not everything works, including a string of murky flashbacks, some tinny accents and a tendency not to let scenes play out. But Brokeback, dramatizing in universals what Oscar Wilde described as the love that dares not speak its name, blazes a trail of its own. “I wish I knew how to quit you,” Jack scoffs at Ennis, after realizing they’ve spent half their time in the shadows. Challenging us through tragedy and sympathy to make those small, happy moments into a lifetime of love, Brokeback Mountain shows why Jack Twist’s wish won’t make it so.
Brokeback Mountain premieres on a single-disc DVD that’s as plain as a pickup truck. Adopting the multiple interview, quick cut approach common to DVD extras, the features on this $29.98 product are not bad—they’re passable in an entertainment television show way—but, cumulatively, they do not match the movie’s strong tone.
Cowboy camp for the leads, horseback riding and story aspects are discussed in brief bursts of mini-interviews with various cast and crew—director Lee, Gyllenhaal, Hathaway, Ledger, Williams—she’s scarcely a presence here—and writers McMurtry and Ossana, who provide the most insightful comments. There are four features, none memorable, and no commentary track.
Buy it for the movie, which traces a secret homosexual love affair, suffocating from repression, shrouded in traditionalism, and doomed by the movie’s true abomination: a life without love, joy and intimacy.
Two-Disc Collector’s Edition (2006)
A fancier two-disc version of the movie that was passed over in last year’s Best Picture Oscar race, Brokeback Mountain, premieres on DVD this week. Handsome packaging, eight collectible postcards—including the pivotal one from the movie—and new stuff make it an all-around better deal than the sparse first edition.
Besides the original’s extras, new features consist of a slide show, a ten-minute piece on the evocative soundtrack and the 16-minute A Groundbreaking Success, which briefly includes star Heath Ledger and director Ang Lee and spends more time with industry insiders and gay press types talking about the movie’s impact. Notably absent from the add-ons: the writer, Annie Proulx, whose short story sparked the movie, screenwriter Larry McMurtry (his wife, co-writer Diana Ossana, appears) and the rest of the cast.
The new material is produced in the subdued style of Brokeback Mountain, which remains a deeply moving motion picture.
This article was originally published in December 2005 on Box Office Mojo. The 2-disc review was posted in the author’s column in 2006.