Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Brokeback Mountain

4/4

Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid

Rated R for Sexuality, Nudity, Language and Some Violence

As Hollywood was gearing up for 78th Academy Awards, no movie was more talked about than Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.”  Hugely controversial upon its release due to its homosexual themes, “Brokeback Mountain” has been seen as a galvanizing event in the gay rights movement and an example of liberal Hollywood pushing an agenda (depending on who you ask).  This is ironic because really, “Brokeback Mountain” has almost nothing to do with sexual orientation or gay rights.  It’s simply a romance between two men.

It is 1963, Wyoming. A young ranch hand named Ennis del Mar (Ledger) is making small talk with another ranch hand.  His name is Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal).  They are hired by Joe Aguirre (Quaid) to take his herd of sheep up to Brokeback Mountain to graze and protect them from the local wolf population.  While there, a surprising bond forms between them, one that turns sexual after a night of heavy drinking.  Ennis and Jack are soon deeply in love, but too soon after, they have to go back to civilization.  They claim they “ain’t queer” and that this is just a onetime thing, but four years later, after both have married had children, Jack travels to Wyoming to see Ennis.

This film was a door opener for all four of its leads.  The late great Heath Ledger was primarily known as a hunky heartthrob until he blew the world away with his performance as Ennis.  With his lockjaw and muffled voice, Ledger becomes Ennis.  We can see his inner turmoil bubbling under the surface.  He would like nothing better than to live on a ranch with Jack, but he fears discrimination and more importantly, he has his own family to take care of.  Jake Gyllenhaal is also very good, but he doesn’t have the same impact as Ledger (probably because he’s on screen for a lesser amount of time).  Jack equally in love with Ennis as Ennis is with him, but he’s not afraid to express it.  Like Ennis, he is equally bound to his family, although his father-in-law hates him and his wife doesn’t seem to care one way or another.  The two women in the film, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams, were known for their projects geared at teens and tweens; Hathaway for “The Princess Diaries” and Williams for “Dawson’s Creek.”  Both of them shed their old skins almost immediately.  Williams is good as Ennis’ suspicious wife Alma, and Hathaway is terrific as Jack’s tenacious and independent wife, Lureen.  Ironically, it was Williams who got the Oscar nod when Hathaway is actually the stronger performer.

Ang Lee is a master of subtlety.  There are no theatrics or grand gestures here. There are times when characters lose control of their emotions, but like everything else, Lee keeps it in check.  Using a subtle hand is a risky move; it can easily become an overblow, pretentious bore, like in “The Royal Tenenbaums” or the recent “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”  But Lee is talented enough to make sure that none of the emotion that is key to the film gets lost.  Lee is also a master of visuals (although not in the same sense that, say, Zack Snyder is).  This is evident in his other movies like “Eat Drink Man Woman” and especially “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”  Every frame is perfectly composed (generously helped by the gorgeous photography by Rodrigo Prieto).

The true genius of “Brokeback Mountain” is completely separating the story from the “issue.”  Homosexuality is an integral part of the story and the threat of violence is explicitly referenced, but the film has no opinion about it.  It simply tells the story by focusing on the characters.  People who accuse it of pushing an agenda obviously haven’t seen the movie because it does no such thing.

For a while, I thought “Brokeback Mountain” was very good, but not deserving of all the praise that it had received.  I’ve seen it three times, and maybe because it has grown on me, but I’m upping the rating from 3.5 to 4 stars.  It’s not flawless (the filmmakers seemed to have forgotten to age the characters except for their hair and Peter McRobbie is unconvincing in his one scene as Jack’s father), but it is so powerful that a 3.5 simply does not do it justice.

Beautiful, passionate and erotic, “Brokeback Mountain” is truly a love story to be treasured.

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