I wish I could write my review of Brokeback Mountain without having to even mention the phrase “gay western” but I’ll just say it and move on. The film is much more than that limiting, two-word description and deserves all the accolades it is receiving. It also deserves a large audience—even those who may feel turned off by the “gay western” tag it’s gotten.
Because of its content, it really is unlike any other western that has ever come before it, but make no bones about it—this is a western. It’s a western in attitude and spirit and has one of the most memorable and heartbreaking love stories seen in American film in years.
Brokeback Mountain begins in 1963 Wyoming as two young, cash poor cowboys sign up to spend the summer watching thousands of sheep on a rancher’s mountain land. The “pair of deuces,” as the ranch foreman calls them early on, barely speak to each other as the summer starts. As they spend time isolated on the mountain range they begin to bond, and eventually, feel a complicated attraction to each other.
These two cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist (played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) are completely surprised by what occurs on Brokeback Mountain and it creates various amounts of turmoil in their lives after they leave the mountain and resume their lives away from one another.
Director Ang Lee, back in familiar waters after his big budget misstep in 2003 with Hulk, crafts the early parts of the film by letting us slowly get to know these two men and the ruggedly beautiful setting. Then he separates the men by letting us see how their lives are away from one another to see how much they care for each other when they meet again.
Lee is a masterful director when it comes to incisive character driven pieces and with this story he delves deeper into two individuals than he ever has. Ennis and Jack have to face aspects about who they are and how they can fit into this rough and tumble, conservative cowboy and rodeo world they exist in. It’s not easy and tremendously brave to have to recognize the fact that to love a person might also get you killed, beaten to death in some far off patch of land.
As with any Ang Lee film, he wrings out terrific performances out of his cast and this film is no different. Standouts include Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams as his wife and Randy Quaid in a small, but important, role as the ranch foreman.
I’ve never been a fan of the Australian Ledger but he delivers a powerful and fearless performance as the conflicted Ennis Del Mar. He is caught in a web he doesn’t understand how to get out of—his wife and family or this man he loves. Already a silent, brooding person, Ennis becomes so wrapped inwardly he can barely speak or look you in the eye. Rage is bubbling under the surface like a coiled wire.
There is a shot in the film involving Ennis that is perhaps the most visually striking and composed shot I’ve seen all year. Ennis beats up a pair of bikers and stands over them, fists clenched, jaw tight, wife and babies loom in the background as fireworks explode overhead. It doesn’t get any better than that shot as it tells you every single detail you need to know about Ennis Del Mar.
Like Lee’s other character driven films—Brokeback Mountain reeks of authenticity. He captures the mountain setting, bars, rodeos, run down farms, the clothes and small and dusty western towns perfectly. You believe that these two men exist in this world, which further fuels the danger and elicit nature of their relationship.
The film was co-written by one of the great western novelists of all-time and a personal favorite of mine, Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), which also lends authenticity to the setting and the characters in it. The spare score with acoustic guitars and pedal steel guitar that languidly drifts in and out fits in perfectly with the setting.
Brokeback Mountain is as good as advertised. It’s not only a stellar western but a truly unique love story that is complex, beautifully filmed, haunting and powerful. Highly recommended.