Almost nine years have come and gone since that fateful Oscar night, when a craggy, faded movie star named Jack Nicholson cracked open one of those inimitable envelopes and fell back, shocked, gasping with disbelief that a movie nobody really liked had won the biggest prize in movies. “CRASH!” the man gasped, much to the jubilation of the production team of the race relations drama, and much to the chagrin of pretty much everyone else on the planet.
Of course, for the aging Academy there was no other real outcome. They weren’t going to desecrate the memory of someone like John Wayne, by awarding a film which impudently added a gay twist on the cowboy genre! Critic groups be damned! Cultural phenomena? Who cares! Containing three searing performances? Whatever! The Academy wanted to talk about race, which was a shame because, as most people know, Brokeback Mountain was easily one of the strongest films of its year. It’s a lyrical ode to the complexities of sexuality, and a brutal examination on the meaning of masculinity in mid-20th century America.
Two ranch hands, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack Fucking Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) spend a summer together herding sheep in the early 1960′s. The two form an intense, compassionate connection, which eventually manifests itself physically. The two men seperate at summer’s end, and the remainder of the film chronicles their lives as they marry, look for work, become fathers, and every so often reunite at Brokeback Mountain for (as Jack Fucking Twist classically puts it), a “high-altitude fuck!” It’s a deceptively simple story that functions best as an intuitive character study. Jack Twist is fixated on obtaining more in his relationship with Ennis, continually pushing him to abandon life with his wife Alma (a devastating Michelle Williams), and establish a ranch where they can be together. However, Ledger’s Ennis is emotionally dysfunctional and harbors an intense, complicated relationship with himself, perpetually oscillating between ambivalence to outright self-loathing.
Brokeback’s characterization is rich and evocative, with the two men given fully formed personalities that immediately fuse together, forming a dynamic that remains compelling throughout the story. Diana Ossana’s and Larry McMurtry‘s script does an excellent job of fleshing out an entire history for each of the two leads. By the story’s end we have a firm, multi-faceted understanding of both men.
Even more impressive is how many of the film’s most critical moments are communicated non-verbally, such as Michelle Williams’ Alma stiffening up after catching Jack and Ennis kissing or Jack’s mother compassionately acknowledging that she has known the truth the whole time. It is difficult to tell where the credit lies for this attribute. Is it the deft directorial hand of Ang Lee or the sparse nature of the script? Is it the personal suggestions of the actor or is it all three combined? Whatever the case the different artistic elements of Brokeback coalesce to bring the audience a series of powerfully drawn characters grappling with issues that are both incredibly painful and universal.
All of the main cast in the film is exemplary, with the possible exception being Anne Hathaway‘s dubious impersonation of a Texas cowgirl. Michelle Williams however, who long ago jettisoned her banal Dawson’s Creek shtick, is revelatory, with her character Alma being completely incapacitated by the knowledge of her husband’s sexual ambiguity. As the more animated and emotionally open of the two men, Gyllenhaal is also effective, projecting an endearing, hopeful energy juxtaposed with perpetual frustration. However, it is Heath Ledger’s believable and incredibly complex performance that towers over Brokeback, providing the film with its traumatic soul, and solidifying the young actor’s place in the pantheon of all time great movie performances.
Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar is the nexus of Brokeback Mountain’s entire thematic palette, showcasing the crippling effect produced by one’s internal life conflicting with the mores of his time period. Additionally, Ennis is defined by his propensity for over-compensation, particularly when his sexual desires produce vulnerability. At this point Ennis prescribes to the socially acceptable form of masculinity, which is violence, to settle disputes. All of these themes are captured beautifully in Ledger’s mumbling, hulking, isolated depiction of a half formed man; it’s a performance for the ages.
Apart from Ledger, Brokeback’s other main attraction is the intelligent, accomplished and most importantly sensitive directorial hand of Ang Lee, whose mastery over the medium is evident in the film’s technical qualities. Under his guidance, Gustavo Santaolalla’s minimalist, Oscar-winning score, Rodrigo Prieto’s epic cinematography, and the gritty rural production design deliver a thematically and aesthetically stirring film.
Big, beautiful, and sadly still audacious when it was released in 2005, Brokeback Mountain is one of the most memorable American releases of its decade. It’s a testament to the power of love which benefits enormously from Ang Lee’s skill and the beautiful work from each production department head. Finally, the film’s most powerful aspect is the work of Ledger, whose performance makes Brokeback Mountain a classic but also accentuates the tragedy of his premature demise.