Brokeback Mountain (2005) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, language, and some violence
Running Time: 134 min.
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, David Harbour, Kate Mara, Anna Faris, Linda Cardellini
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana (based on the short story by Annie Proulx)
Review published January 29, 2006
In what will probably meet with some controversy with readers out there, here's my pick for the most overrated film of 2005. Brokeback Mountain rides its one hook - two rugged ranch hands falling in love - for all it's worth, and takes far too long in doing it. I'll grant, it has its finer moments, most notably in the subtle character touches, as well as the quality of Ledger's understated performance, but all in all, this is a barebones drama very similar to other "taboo" love stories, heavy on schmaltzy romance and unintentional camp. Sure, it's all the buzz in 2005, but will people look back to this film in twenty years and think it worth the accolades it has received? As an important social hurdle traversed, perhaps; as a genuinely great movie, I'll wager no.
The story starts out in 1963, where two shepherd cowboys named Ennis (Ledger, Lords of Dogtown) and Jack (Gyllenhaal, The Day After Tomorrow) are hired to spend most of their time watching over a large herd of hundreds of sheep on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Boredom and cold sets in, and the men have only each other to keep company, and soon, the closeness turns to attraction, physical at first, and later, emotional as well. Jack wants to pursue the relationship, but tight-lipped Ennis wants to continue his normal life with his wife (Williams, The Baxter) and kids, despite his feelings. Jack also eventually moves on into a relationship with a woman (Hathaway, Ella Enchanted), but he still wants to keep in touch with Ennis, eventually starting a side relationship where the two men meet for some quality time together.
It's obvious from the outset that the two men will be divided amongst their feelings regarding the relationship they share with each other, particularly in a time and location that looked down on such a union as a disgrace and a sin. How much of this you find interesting greatly depends on how interesting you find male-male relationship issues to be in general. More superficially, perhaps enjoyment by women (and gay men), will also be determined by how attractive you find the male leads and your desire to see Ledger and Gyllenhaal get it on. Removing the sociopolitical aspects of the film in order to review it on its own terms as a story, Brokeback Mountain is surprisingly routine, and during long stretches, quite dull.
After a plodding 45 minutes, the relationship between the gents finally heats up, but there is a curious lack of genuine build-up of emotions, never really manifesting itself in being affecting emotionally. We can only grasp intellectually what the two men are supposed to mean to one another, but even tearful departures remain aloof. Putting it bluntly, the romance just does not work, as much as director Ang Lee (Hulk, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) tries to finagle it just right. Yes, two men can fall in love, but I just never really bought into the notion that these two men could, and given the fact that well over two hours are spent exploring these characters, I can only deem this a misfire romance for that simple reason.
While it would be easy for me to jump on the bandwagon here and call this even a passably good film, the truth is, I just can't. My apologies to those that want to applaud Hollywood for finally pushing a kind of film that it has long been too afraid to make in the past, because Brokeback Mountain just doesn't work, unless you're hell-bent on pretending it does. Underneath it all, there is a thoughtful and very erudite story that yearns to truly compel us, but it's lost somewhere under dispassionate musings, forced drama, and well-intentioned social commentaries that preach to no one but the choir. I could pretend to admire the Emperor called Hollywood's new, all-embracing clothing, but deep down, I'd be lying if I said snooze-inducing syrup like Brokeback is the kind of film they need to make more of.
©2006 Vince Leo