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00643 – BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

MovieHype00643 – BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

{Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Heath Ledger), Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams), Director (Ang Lee), Cinematography, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay}

[Author’s Note: I was going to dovetail my review of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN with a big column on the morality of homosexuality, but I’ve just been too busy to get that done. I still plan on it, perhaps later in the spring, but for now, if you must read thought-provoking commentary, check out #76 To Be Or Not To Be]

Let’s get one thing out of the way: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN will win Best Picture Sunday night, along with Best Director and possibly every non-acting award. It will do so for three reasons:

BROKEBACK is the kind of film Hollywood loves; a Message Movie, beautifully acted, with sweeping vistas and the grandeur of storytelling set over many years, a heartbreaking Romance of love and loss. Sometimes these kinds of films are just slated to win. For example, SCHINDLER’S LIST was the best film of the ‘90s, but even if it wasn’t, the subject matter coupled with the fact that much of Hollywood is Jewish cinched the win. That same year Tom Hanks was a shoo in for his AIDS-infected gay attorney, both for the gay part and the AIDS.

BROKEBACK is by acclaimed director Ang Lee, who many feel should already have two Oscars (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON). Hollywood is famous for tipping the scales toward directors who should have won previously, and Lee is the only nominee who fits that bill.

Third, even if Hollywood—and the critical buzz—wasn’t sold on the film—which, for the record, it very well is, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is the best-reviewed film of the year—the backlash from some on the Conservative side of the aisle virtually guarantees a victory. If for some reason BROKEBACK didn’t win, Social Conservatives would count crow, and that’s something Hollywood couldn’t live with.

With all that as a backdrop, how good is the actual film? Very good. Astonishingly good at times, heartbreaking Romance just like advertised. I personally don’t have it in my top five of films for the year, and neither do I think it’s the best of the actual nominees, but understanding how political these things are, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is not an unworthy choice.

The film unfolds twenty years in the lives of two men: Ennis Del Mar (played by Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who meet up on Brokeback Mountain in Montana; 1963.

They are up there for the summer, just the two of them; charged with keeping a large herd of sheep safe. I know, it sounds like a corny set up, but it doesn’t play that way. What it does play as is tense. I have to assume that no one on the planet is going to accidentally watch this movie without knowing at least something about it. When I first saw the previews I criticized the studio for revealing the two are gay so early. But now having seen the film, I understand; there is no way to hide that secret.

Director Ang Lee doesn’t try. Since I was aware of the gay theme, it heightened the suspense at the beginning. Even if I hadn’t been aware, though, I think I could have cut the tension with a knife.

What adds palpably to the drama is that I’m pretty sure that Ennis has no clue about being gay. You get the sense that Jack has gone through this before, is a little more aware of the way the world works. Ennis…I won’t say he was straight, but I think his sexuality never entered his mind. He’s not an educated man, not a resourceful one, not the least bit imaginative, and certainly not brave. I doubt he could even conceive of a life outside of the ones he’s seen.

I’m pretty sure this is a first for me, but we need to talk about the gay sex. There’s no way around it: the scene plays powerfully, almost brutal. Not in an exploitative way, but no matter what your personal moral beliefs you will be jarred. I don’t mention that for any other reason than I know there are many of you who are perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of seeing this film, but are considering it, and you need to be aware.

I think I kind of almost expected Ang Lee to be circumspect with the love scenes, imply more than he shows. And that is the way it’s handled most of the time. (There is more heterosexual sex in the film than gay sex, and for that matter more bared breasts, almost like some sort of tit for tat scorecard, if you’ll pardon the expression.) But that first time…well, you were told.

Even though I’ve warned you, I don’t want to make BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN seem like some big love-in, because it’s not. Sex is a part of the relationship (as well as the boy-girl ones that come after), but not the focal point. What we do concentrate on is how Ennis and Jack deal with their lives and their feelings after that summer.

Ennis is quick to adamantly point out he’s not queer; this summer thing is just something that took hold of him; Jack agrees, if with less conviction. (For the record, I truly believe that if Jack Twist hadn’t come along Ennis would have lived out his life as a married man; never even dreaming of another way. He may never have been happy, but who is? In that sense maybe he wasn’t gay. Maybe it was just that person. But that’s another column altogether.)

I’ve read at least a dozen reviews of BROKEBACK, and there’s been one big thing missing, something that really bothers me. I think because of the charged political component of “is homosexuality right or wrong?” there is a missed aspect to the behavior of these two men. In other words, by any conventional standard what these two do is reprehensible, but I think most reviewers are loathe to excoriate the characters, for fear it might seem like they are attacking the gay lifestyle.

I’m not attacking gay men or homosexuality. I know you have your opinions on this and I have mine, and we may or may not agree, but for the moment let’s try to hold off on that free-for-all. But what these men do is come down from that mountain and get married.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat understandable. They know that in 1963, in the West, their feelings are not understood, and for sure not tolerated. They are doing their best to be “normal.” I’m not gay (nor do I exist in 1963), so I don’t know the kind of social pressure on them, but I’m guessing it’s more than anything I faced with an interracial romance. I get that they tried to do the “right” thing, as they saw it then.

And I don’t even completely fault them for that. But these two are unable to get each other out of their systems, and their relationship, affair; whatever you want to call it keeps on over the years.

Forget the morality of adultery for a moment. We all know that’s wrong. It’s part of movies. But BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is not just about the men. The performances of their two wives are extraordinary. Michelle Williams (of Dawson’s Creek, no less, and who ever thought out Jen would get an Oscar Nomination before Katie Holmes or the immortal James Van Derbeek?) plays Ennis’s wife Alma. Her screen time is very limited, but she earns her nomination with one look. Alma becomes aware of her husband’s fixation with Jack Twist, and is forced to suffer in silence. In a movie full of heartbreak, it is her pain that affected me the most.

Jack Twist’s wife Lureen played by Ann Hathaway (whom I’ve never cared for before but does a fantastic job), doesn’t seem to know what her husband is up to. She compensates by emotional distance and father issues, which while less dramatic, are still a corroding presence.

That the men would fall in love I get. That they’d try to shake it off and live married lives I understand too. And I even grasp not being able to do so. But my empathy ends there. What these two do is not only ruin their own lives with their forbidden love, but the lives of their families; wives, daughters and sons. (To make matters worse, Ennis does this more than once, after he is keenly aware of what will happen.) That to me is unforgivable, and more people should say so. Whatever sympathy we might feel for their situation, these men are not honorable.

But I don’t want to mislead you into thinking my anger was my main focus. It wasn’t. Sadness was. I felt an overwhelming sadness watching BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I was sad these two met in a time and place that wouldn’t allow their feelings. I was sad for them that they tried to deny those feelings and get married, and made such disasters of their lives. I was very sad for their long-suffering wives, who had to grieve at the death of their marriage, of intimacy, of love, companionship; a life. These women asked for commitment, for a partner, and they couldn’t even get the truth.

I was sad Ennis didn’t have to courage to finally do something about his situation, especially when it became more than obvious he didn’t love his wife and wouldn’t be there for her. Jack repeatedly brings up the idea of moving together, someplace quiet where they might start a life. While I don’t approve of a man abandoning his family, by that point the marriages were shams anyway, and it would have at least been honest to try this new path. But again Ennis’s cowardice comes through, and that was sad to me as well.

By the end of the movie I was hardened, not in a bitter “screw these people; they made their own beds” way, but just resigned that the paths chosen were not going to lead to happiness, and no one had the courage or brains to change that. Then we get the ending. More on that in a minute.

Hyperion’s Rating Guide

Suspension of Disbelief: 0. There is not one false note of humanity here.

Genre Grade: Is BROKEBACK a Message Movie or a Failed Romance? In some ways it’s like CRASH, but in more ways it’s like KING KONG. I’m going to go with Epic Romance on the scale of DR. ZHIVAGO, TITANIC and ROMEO AND JULIET. If those three earn an A+, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN gets an A.

Sex/Violence? There is sex, from both sides of the plate, some nudity, although with the men it’s just quick flashes pale bottoms, and with the women not much more. There is some violence, more in an implied fashion. I’m not quite sure what to say here. I put this section in the guide to tell people who are offended by such whether they can handle it. But let’s be honest: this all comes down to whether you can watch a movie about gay cowboys. If you can, you’ll deal with the adult situations. If you can’t, you won’t.

Family Fare? Who in their right mind would let a kid see BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN? Though there is nothing gratuitous, the Adult Themes isn’t just a suggestion.

Kickassability? Doesn’t Apply.

Pantheon Percentile: This will be a classic for a long time, and I’m pretty sure Movie books will mention it as ground-breaking, perhaps even the start of a movement. That’s a lot to live up to, but BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN holds up its end. 91.

I’ve never been high on Heath Ledger, usually finding him a one-not actor, and a boring note at that. In a strange way it’s the same performance, but somehow Ledger makes it work as Ennis. As the protagonist we can’t help but root for the guy, even as we see a stupid scared heartbroken man, utterly incapable of changing his life. It’s a well-earned Oscar nomination. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is more emotive, but just as necessary to the overall texture of the film. All of the performances are perfect and fit just right into the movie, from Randy Quaid’s scary rancher to Ennis’s daughter, who loves her daddy but understands she surpassed him a long time ago. The cast is great, but when every single performance is that good, you look to the director.

Speaking of Ang Lee, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is as beautiful as any of his films. Lee can find the poetry in anything, and his ability to bring out the lyrical and gut-wrenching simultaneously sets him apart from other directors. I’m not a big fan of people winning Oscars as more of a lifetime achievement award, but I am happy that his genius continues to grow in recognition.

We’ve talked before in Monkey Barn that this film has entered the cultural zeitgeist. It’s what all the buzz is about, including all the late-night comedians. Amazingly no one even seems offended by this, I guess understanding that it can't hurt to get people talking about it, no matter where they come from.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN probably won’t change your mind on any moral decisions you’ve come to. It doesn’t try to preach to the issues of modern society—which is a very good thing—but merely tells the story of these two men, and lets whatever ramifications that come from that occur to you on your own. I do think there is a large percentage of people who don’t approve of homosexuality who would still get a lot out of the film. These characters, though extraordinarily flawed, are so human that it is easy to feel their pain, beyond the specifics to the simple human condition.

Which brings us back the end. It’s almost a Blair Witch situation, one of those things that won’t hit you when you first see it, but maybe a few seconds later, and will stay with you for a long time. I myself gasped and felt like crying. Ang Lee has crafted a wonderful movie, full of heart and heartbreak, of that most poignant of situations, love that will never be fulfilled.

I complain until I’m blue in the face how the Oscars usually devolve into a mere popularity contest—and they do. But BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN holds up well. Though not my choice, I endorse the film. You can see why everyone’s talking.

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