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Movie Review: Brokeback Mountain

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Brokeback MountainLove 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
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 routine, the two men did not foresee the bond that would grow up on the mountain. 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 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. Had not been saved by the acting, the plot itself would have had no legs on which it could stand alone.

The Acting
As I previously mentioned, where Brokeback Mountain falls short in the realm of storytelling 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 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 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 audience’s 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 are 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 four 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: 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.

Making the Grade:
The Story: C
The Acting: A+
Behind the Scenes: C
Overall: B-

Neil Miller is the Editor of Film School Rejects.

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  • I can only guess that you and I saw different films.

  • I have to second that. What on earth could be considered confusing about this film, anyway?

  • Jet in Columbus OH

    Brokeback Mountain is not for everyone. It has no mincing fairies, no comic-relief lisping queens, and absolutely no preaching or hidden messages or agendas. In fact the main character-Ennis is probably one of the most “manly” men ever seen in a movie.

    Two young men, a ranch hand, and a up-and-coming rodeo bull rider, (the very definition of the word “cowboys”) are so down on their luck, that they’re forced to do something no cowboy wants to do-herd sheep over the summer on Brokeback Mountain.

    Straight men who see this movie identify with them… and there lies the problem. The movie hits a little too close to home. Jack and Ennis regularly go camping in the wilderness, were brought up to own guns and know how to use them well, hunt elk and wild game, fish, carry hunting knives and know how to survive in the forest on their own. They own dogs, love life on horseback, tend cattle, ride bulls in rodeos, live on ranches, date women, father children, drink whiskey and beer, get into bar fights, and own and repair old pick-up trucks.

    The two men never planned to fall into the situation they find themselves in, and have no idea how to react to it themselves. They don’t even know words to describe their feelings-Ennis can only call it “This thing”. When the summer ends, they go back to ranching, herding cattle and horses, competing in the rodeo, selling farm equipment and existing in the standard cowboy life, fathering children, attending church and Fourth of July celebrations, and arguing with their wives.

    As for the explicit sex scene-Huh???? Oh, there’s nudity, and it’s ALL between the husbands and their wives. The intimate scenes between the men-hell they’re never shown with their jeans off, and only one is shirtless! If all you attend a movie for is sex scenes, you’ll be better satisfied being straight, gawking at the women in their sexy attire and total nudity during the sex scene. The sex between the men is done in classic Alfred Hitchcock fashion and you’ll swear you saw more than you actually did, because it’s left to your imagination. If you see it a second time you’ll be astonished that no sexual contact is actually shown at all-except what you “thought” you saw!

    And there lies the proof. This movie is just a damned good simple love story, and anyone too scared to see it, is probably so unsure of their own sexuality, that they feel determined to review a movie they’ve never seen, and probably never will. In fact if the two fictional characters in it actually lived, their wives would probably have to drag them kicking and screaming into the theater and tie them to a seat! Which is what my wife almost had to do to get me to see it.
    I was so moved; I took my teen-aged son to see it the next evening.

    So go grab your masculine pride, your wife/girlfriend to put on your arm to prove you’re straight, and be prepared to sit in an audience of people straight people, just like you and me, and be shocked at how a whole theater of people can laugh, and then cry while seeing a damned good movie… Just remember to wipe your eyes before the lights come up.

    As you leave for your car, you know undoubtedly, why the two shirts worn by Jack and Ennis brought in $101,100.51 (!) recently at auction to benefit a children’s charity.

  • Art

    Brokeback is a middling melodrama that would have received no attention and drawn even smaller audiences without the gay gimmick. It isn’t a great film, it is barely a good one. In short, this is nothing special.

  • I saw Brokeback Mountain several times. It was a fantastic story and I loved every minute of it even the few times that I cried. I’ll buy it as soon as it comes out on dvd.

  • ennis

    When a movie critic says that Lee “failed at his craft” for Brokeback Mountain, then, that critic simply isn’t to be taken seriously. He hardly failed at his craft! I mean…..even I have to concede the man and his movie are nothing short of true masterpieces. Make no mistake-this was not just a good movie. When one calls the movie a “middling melodrama” which only had a “gay gimmick” (huh?) you know that the subject of this eternal epic is just too much for some. Most of us understand this. For many of us, however, this wasn’t just best movie of the year. It was the movie of our entire lives.

  • Barney

    Your review is one silly review.
    Where are you from? The last house at the
    edge of the universe?

  • Neil M., I like the other critics on FilmSchoolRejects.com better

  • Neil M. you are a silly critic…but you are right…

  • Alex

    “Lee has truly failed his craft”…
    Then I guess all these people MUST be crazy:

    BAFTA Awards: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Critics’ Choice Award: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Directors Guild of America Awards: Director of the Year Award – Theatrical Motion Picture (Ang Lee)
    European Film Awards: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Florida Film Critics Circle: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Golden Globe Awards: Best Director – Motion Picture (Ang Lee)
    Iowa Film Critics: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Las Vegas Film Critics Society: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    London Film Critics Circle: Best Film and Best Director of the Year
    Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    National Board of Review: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    New York Film Critics Circle: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Satellite Awards: Outstanding Director (Ang Lee)
    Southeastern Film Critics Association: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    The 62nd Venice International Film Festival: “Golden Lion” for Best Film
    Directors Guild of America: Best Director (Ang Lee)
    Utah Film Critics: Best Director (Ang Lee)

    Nominated: (And Will surely win)
    Academy Award:** Best Director (Ang Lee)

    Did I leave out any? 😉

  • Cathy Morales

    Thanks to “Jet In Columbus”! you seem to have a better understanding of the movie. I went to see it last night with my boyfriend thanks to your review. I give both your review and the movie 5 stars!

  • Don’t get me wrong. I was moved during the movie as well. I was also caught with tears in my eyes at certain points. But I really did feel that the performances were what gave this film life, not the story itself. The story itself cannot stand alone without the addition of some world class acting.

  • Neil M., I like the other critics on FilmSchoolRejects.com better

    Why? because you disagree with the review? Now, I don’t know anything of FSR, nor their reviewers, but Neil M. wrote out a very thoughtful piece here. He’s certainly not out and out panning the movie, he clearly said there were redeeming qualities, especially the acting.

    Some critics are much harsher. I think this reviewer showed class.

  • -E

    I really enjoyed the movie and thing Ang should get Best Director for sure. The acting was phenominal, and yeah bad acting would have made it a bad movie, but that could be said for any of the movies nominated. What makes an Oscar film stand out is that it isn’t just sub par.

    I’ve seen it twice. I don’t know that I’ll buy it. It is beautiful (I do disagree on the point made about not using nature, I felt it was incredible cinematography and used the natural location in an amazing way), but it’s kinda boring. The short story was better (for me). But then, I hated Sideways and Lost In Translation because I got bored in them too. Not much plot and just a bunch of talking isn’t what I like as a consumer. But from a purely technical standpoint as someone working in films, I really admire Brokeback.

  • Movies with people just talking aren’t interesting?

    “My Dinner with Andre” ring a bell.

  • I have to say, this review confused me. You say Ang Lee failed at his craft and the story was “confusing.” Then you say “I truly believe that it accomplished much of what it set out to do as a work of art.” I don’t see how you can say this if the only thing you liked about it was the acting. If you don’t like the direction, the cinematography, the score, the scenery or the story, how did it accomplish what it set out to do? It didn’t set out to give us a bad story or scenery or whatnot, so the review seems to be contradicting itself.

    That’s fine if you didn’t like the movie, and I think you do make some good points. But your summary was perplexing.

  • Don,

    I agree whole-heartedly. I would say that looking back on the review now I have learned that I really should have been more clear with my feelings on the film. When I went back and read it after it had been posted, I wanted to kick myself. Unfortunately all I can do now is move forward with the lesson learned.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Film School Rejects

  • Cathy Morales

    Dear Neil,
    After re-reading your review, I agree with it a little more, but only to a point. I somehow got the feeling you were copying someone else’s homework and really didn’t put your heart into it, especially about the behind the scenes stuff, (that’s right off of their website)-how did you miss the part about Heath nearly breaking Jake’s nose filming the kissing scene at the bottom of the stairs?
    I still think Jet in Columbus (Comment #3) did a better job… Sorry!

  • Neil, I have to commend you for how mature and open-minded you are when receiving this kind of constructive criticism and feedback. Not a lot of writers would be so gracious. My hat is off to you!

  • Me

    The movie was not filmed in Wyoming. It was filmed in Canada. Thank you.