From Focus Features
Directed by Ang Lee
Scott Michael Campbell
Yes, my favorite movie of all time. It's taken awhile to get here, but here we are. There is none finer... of that I am quite adamant. There is so much I could say about this film and I have wrestled with saying it because my fear is it would rival War and Peace. I could literally (literally!!) break it down scene by scene but we can't be responsible for you nodding off at your computer or wherever you're viewing this. Nonetheless, strap yourself in and let's return to Brokeback Mountain.
Let's start boldly. I find nothing wrong with it. It's rare that I would say that but here is one of those perfect movies from a technical standpoint. Every single scene is a gem and stands on its own as a little story with a beginning, middle and end. Sewn together like a beautiful tapestry, it evoked in me an emotional response that no film had done before or since. I feel like an expert on it and why not? I saw it 19 times in theaters and more times on DVD than I can possibly calculate. And of course, I just finished watching it again.
I must explain those 19 times in theaters. I saw it at a special showing before it's official release date and flipped out over those technical merits and how well the story was told. I then wanted everyone I knew to see it. I had no problem convincing gay people to go-- most had it on their radar anyway-- but it was some of those straight folks. To tell the truth, I felt I had spent a lifetime watching (and enjoying) straight love stories and I thought it was a must that my straight friends and family should go see a gay love story. What I didn't reckon on was how many said ok, but you go with me. And I did. To my everlasting relief, everyone liked it... some a great deal.
It's that gay love story notion that has caused a lot of concern, it seems. Many of those connected with the film would say it was simply a love story, albeit a forbidden one, and one with universal appeal. Fine. I have no problem with that. What happened with the two main characters could have been any two characters. It could have been about a bi-racial couple or about a cougar and a college student or one crossing religious boundaries. But it wasn't. It was about gay people and though I clearly would have quite liked it about other types of folks, I liked it more because it was about my type. In fact, I luxuriated sitting in that seat and thinking it's about time.
It was based on a stunning short story by Annie Proulx which was first published in The New Yorker in 1997. But good as it was, as is, it wasn't enough to make a two-hour film and along came writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana who fleshed it out more while still retaining a great deal of Proulx's prose and mood and sense of purpose.
The setting is 1963 Wyoming and concerns a taciturn ranch hand, Ennis Del Mar, who is struggling with the fear of his sexual identity which stems from a childhood incident in which his father shows him a man suspected of being gay who has been beaten to death. It equally concerns a rodeo cowboy, Jack Twist, who is more outgoing, more engaged, more inviting, more hopeful. He is particularly interested in a future with Ennis but it is not to be. Whoever said that all great love stories end in tragedy would certainly be impressed with this film.
The two young men meet when they sign up to herd sheep on the mountain. Once there, in a tent during the night, Jack's eagerness to have a physical relationship with Ennis is met with a stony silence and then rough sex. The next day they sit high on the mountainside when Ennis tells Jack I ain't queer and Jack responds me neither. Their furtive relationship begins and will spill out over a 20-year period.
Jack was ready to have a permanent relationship with Ennis but not the other way around. I was the same age as these characters were in 1963 and I did the same thing they did... I married. Like Ennis, I was not at all ready to tackle the gay thing in 1963 in a world that I regarded as hostile on the subject. Neither man married women they were truly in love with which becomes all the more obvious when they meet up four years after being on the mountain and realize their passions are as strong as ever. As Ennis slams Jack up against a wall and kisses him with reckless abandon, it is clear the passage of time has only strengthened the friends' ardor. It is also clear to Alma, Ennis's wife, who is watching.
Ennis's marriage ends and with it comes with the mistaken hope on Jack's part that they will now live together permanently. They continue periodic trysts, culminating in a final meeting back on the mountain where they have a blowout over their relationship not being more than it is and Jack's dalliances with other men. You made me like this, Ennis cries out as he drops to the ground in emotional pain. I regard this scene as not only the best in the film but the best in any film I have ever seen. When I am watching it on DVD, I replay it two or three times. Here, see for yourself ...
Ennis has a postcard he sent to Jack returned to him saying that Jack is deceased. In one of the film's most revealing scenes, Ennis calls Jack's wife, Lureen, whom he has never met, and we are treated to a richness in character and dialogue and physical business as each one tries to come to terms with what has happened.
A chapter of the film that completely captivated me was when Ennis goes to meet Jack's parents at their ranch house. It was the part where most everything clicked for Ennis. After a lifetime of denials and secrets and frustrations, it all came together. Through the gruffness of Jack's father and the kindness of his mother, Ennis understood for the first time what he has lost. That certainly bore out in the scene where he visits Jack's childhood bedroom and discovers the shirts in the closet, the ones they were wearing on the mountain the first time that got bloody during a scuffle. Ennis thought he had lost his shirt up there on the mountain but here it was with Jack's shirt wrapped around it as if an embrace. (I'll be damned if I am not right now stifling a desire to cry.)
Something important came in the film's final scenes in Ennis's trailer when he asks his daughter if she loves her boyfriend. I had missed it the first several times I saw the film. Ennis mentioned love! He finally got it. It's all about love and love is about all that matters. With love you can conquer most anything. And there's the sadness that neither Ennis nor Jack ever mentioned loving one another, which they clearly did. How heart-breaking.
And then Ennis goes to his closet and hanging there are the two shirts, with one distinction. Now Ennis's shirt is the one on the outside of Jack's shirt. Ennis is hugging Jack. And then, as the movie ends, Ennis says Jack, I swear. He swears what? Jack, I swear I've always loved you and hate that I never told you? Jack, I swear you meant everything to me and I ache without you? Jack, I swear I feel empty that we never moved our relationship beyond the secrets of Brokeback Mountain? Jack, I swear we should have started that cattle/calf operation you once brought up? Jack, I swear you really did once have a better idea. The possibilities are endless but what they all have in common is that I ached for this broken man.
Ang Lee had wanted to direct this film for a few years. One might wonder how a Taiwanese director could helm a film about the American west, cowboys, gay men. But his films have been set in many nations and many times. Furthermore he had previously made a gay-themed film, The Wedding Banquet, and a western, Ride with the Devil. We saw relationships and love and sex in The Ice Storm. And how about the love, loyalty and loss in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? How he deftly constructed this film, word by word, emotion by emotion, scene by scene, location by location is simply sheer genius to me. All the actors, it seems, got over any reservations they might have had in making Brokeback Mountain because they wanted to work with this skilled craftsman. He would win the Oscar for best direction.
All great movies are about great writing and McMurtry and Ossana (who also co-produced with James Schamus) did just that. They fleshed out Annie Proulx's brilliant but slight story and gave this story the legs it needed to bring about their Oscar-winning screenplay. McMurtry referred to it as a tragedy of emotional deprivation and Ossana has said I think the thing that startled me was the emotions the story made me feel. It affected me as a woman and I felt it would surely affect anyone else, no matter what their sexual preference. The feelings are universal... love, loss, pain, regret.
The role of Ennis Del Mar is one of the best characters ever written for the screen... brooding, twisted, troubled, fearful, guarded, violent under the surface, tightly-wound, socially and romantically awkward, hobbled by his sexuality, constricted in his gestures, hunched over, his mouth barely moving when he speaks (which isn't often). He was brought to life by an acting god, Heath Ledger. (It wasn't a fluke either if one later saw his portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight.) The nervous, often hyper actor, who was not much at all like Ennis Del Mar, said he got the best of all advice from Lee when he was told to do less. You want evidence of that? Watch again the scenes with Jack's parents.
Jack Twist, the initiator, the optimist, the romantic, the dreamer, seeker of stability, was beguilingly portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal. While I give more credentials to Ledger in the acting department and found the Del Mar character more compelling, that is not to slight Gyllenhaal or Jack Twist whatsoever. In fact, it is his monologue in my favorite scene that makes that scene grab me as it does. Both actors, who had known one another slightly when they both auditioned for the Ewan McGregor role in Moulin Rouge, came as a team and the film would not have worked if either one didn't give his earnest best.
Four actresses also gave their best. As Alma, Ennis's wife, Michelle Williams gave a rich, understated performance which garnered her an Oscar nomination. Anne Hathaway toned down her oh-golly-gee-whiz-ness that I've never much cared for, and shone as the increasingly brittle and blonded Lureen. She deserves all the kudos I could muster for that phone scene. Linda Cardellini gave a poignant performance as Cassie, a woman who takes up with Ennis after his divorce and hopes in vain to turn him into a loving partner. Kate Mara, as Ennis's older daughter, Junior, hit the marks as the one who stood by her father through thick and thin.
The remainder of the cast is flawless as well but special mention must be given to Roberta Maxwell and Peter Robbie as Jack's parents. Without their expert emoting and great countenance, that chapter with Ennis wouldn't have been quite as affecting.
I would be oh-so-remiss if I didn't mention Rodrigo Prieto and Gustavo Santaolalla. The former is the director of cinematography who enabled us to visit the claustrophobic world of squalor that Ennis lived in, so important to portray for our understanding, and also took our breath away with the grandeur of the mountain sequences. Santaolalla's magnificent score, another Oscar winner, did what all good musical scores should do... create feelings and atmosphere. From the first twang of that guitar to the way his music breaks the silence as we move through some of the film's more poignant moments, of which there's a goodly number, I was as emotionally touched and often as over-wrought as a score has ever caused me to be. It seemed so simple and spare but it fired up more emotions than a symphony orchestra.
I must tip my hat (hell, I should at least buy him a car or somethin') to the location manager and the scouts for those yummy places Prieto got to photograph. I am pretty certain I have never made a mention of a location manager in any previous piece on a movie, but I make an exception here. You will see how much an exception that really is, too, in my next posting.
Of course, such a superbly-made film would be honored as the year's best picture by virtually all critics, festivals, awards groups around the world. Even with the Oscar folks, it would win best director and best writing and if those aren't two of the most vital awards for winning best picture, I couldn't name what is. But those homophobic neanderthals in Hollywood wouldn't honor it with a best picture honor. I liked what the Toronto Star critic Peter Howell had to say on the subject: Sunday's selection of Crash over Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture was the first time in memory that fear seemed to be the guiding impulse for awarding Oscar's top prize. Faced with the choice between a feel-good movie about the evils of racism and a troublesome film that challenged prejudices about homosexual love, Academy voters grabbed their security blankets and started sucking on their thumbs. Thank you, Peter. I'm not usually such a sore loser.
If I have gotten off on writing about my 50 favorite films (and I have, m'dear, so help me I have), can you just imagine how my chain gets yanked for THE favorite film? I think a film really reaches a perfection when it transports us to another place and time and taps into a deep part of one's emotions. I have said that in prior reviews. Today I would be the same age as those characters. I have lived parts of their lives. I am emotionally attached, let it be said. I love it when a movie can scare me or bring on my tears or make me convulse with laughter or I see a love story that makes my heart soar. If they can make me do this, if I can believe it... it was a damned good movie.
I love to be entertained and that piece of moviegoing is an absolute must... no matter what. But how often do we get the opportunity to see a film and understand it on a socio-cultural plane? How many films give us that opportunity? While entertaining me, BBM has taken me by the hand and let me peek and sometimes re-examine some important chapters of my own life... as a man, as a gay man, as a husband, as a father, a friend, as a fearful person, a secret-keeper, as one who loves. Maybe you don't want to examine. I get that. But I do. I just want to be given the chance occasionally to do it.
I thought about this film as it was being made. I read everything I could. I saw it as soon as I could and saw it scores of times and will see it again. It has occupied my brain since 2004 and caused me not only to think about the film itself but about who I am. I'd say that's a pretty special movie.
I have also loved 49 other films that I have written about but there's been nothing like my experience with Brokeback Mountain. I don't wish I knew how to quit it. I know that if I can't fix it, I gotta stand it. There ain't no reins on this one. Sometimes when I want to see it again, I realize there is never enough time, never enough. Tell you what, sometimes I miss watching it so bad I can hardly stand it. Brokeback got me good.
P.S. No more beans.
Off to the Canadian Rockies