Saturday, 21 October 2017

Review #1,261: 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005)

It may now be 12 years old, but Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, based on the short story by Annie Proulx, is still more relevant than ever. At the time of its release, the debate around gay marriage was raging, and continued to do so in the subsequent years. Thankfully, same-sex marriage is now practised in many countries across the world, although it would still be deemed a crime and a sin elsewhere. But anyone who thinks that the themes explored in the film only relate to a relationship between two gay men or women have profoundly missed the point. The story applies to the love between any two people which may be considered taboo, or just plain wrong in society's eyes, whether this be for religious, political or sexual reasons, and this is something that will continue to be a talking point for many years to come.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two down-on-their-luck young cowboys in 1963 Wyoming. They arrive at Brokeback Mountain looking for work, and are hired by the bigoted Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd sheep over the summer months. The work is hard and dangerous, and the pair spend most nights winding down passing a bottle of whiskey. After one particularly heavy night of drinking, Jack makes a move on Ennis and the two make passionate, almost violent love. Aware of society's attitudes towards gay men, the two agree that their relationship must be kept secret and their feelings locked away, and they part ways determined to forget the experience. They both marry (their wives are played by Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway) and have children in the following years, but neither can forget the time spend together on the mountain.

Ang Lee's primary focus has always been on character. Even his worst film, the superhero misfire Hulk, spent far more (most would say too much) time concentrating on the human side of its lead instead his angry, green alter-ego. Following Ennis and Jack over the course of a couple of decades, we experience Ennis' inner turmoil and Jack's complete frustration, with the latter's anger stemming from both society's refusal to let them be who they want to be, and Ennis' dismissing of Jack's idea to buy a ranch with him so they can live out their days together. Jack is more accepting of his own sexuality, occasionally attempting pick-ups in bars and often forced to pay prostitutes in dingy alleys. Haunted by an experience with his father as a child, Ennis is in a constant battle with himself. Angry at the discrimination he would face were he display his true emotions in public, and possibly disgusted at himself for possessing such feelings, he stoically drinks and smokes his nights away after his marriage falls apart.

The script, by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, refuses to over-simplify the characters and force labels on them. It isn't entirely clearly whether the two men are homosexual, bisexual or even heterosexual, as their relationship is built on something far more transcendent. It's one of the many reasons why the film shouldn't be remembered as that 'gay cowboy movie'. Ledger and Gyllenhaal are both terrific, and received Academy Award nominations for their efforts. Ledger is undoubtedly the standout as the buttoned-up, tight-lipped tough guy repressing a range of emotions he doesn't full understand behind his incredibly sad eyes. Tragically, he wouldn't completely shake off his pretty boy image until three years later - the year of his death - after The Dark Knight. It is a film that will no doubt resonate with most people whose feelings fall outside of what society considers the 'norm', and will continue to do so for many years to come. On top of that, Brokeback Mountain is simply a beautiful piece of cinema, with one of the most heart-breaking final scenes ever filmed.

Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid
Country: USA/Canada

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Brokeback Mountain (2005) on IMDb

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