#11 – “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” (2005)
Directed by Ang Lee
If there’s one thing you can’t criticise Ang Lee for it’s lack of directorial diversity. In the last fifteen year alone he’s tackled Jane Austin, 70’s melodrama, the American Civil War, Qing Dynasty wuxia, erotic espionage and Marvel’s decidedly non-jolly green giant. What’s even more applaudable, therefore, is the sheer quality of his back catalogue with each successive film seemingly bringing with it not just a new genre but further proof of Lee’s directorial finesse and cinematic range.
So it’s somewhat disheartening to recall the tidal wave of controversy and media coverage “Brokeback Mountain” initially courted upon its release simply for being that “gay cowboy movie”. Look past such short-sighted pigeonholing, however, and Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s 1997 novella emerges as one of the most tender, passionate and above all human love stories of the past decade.
Yet for a film that is so fuelled by love the “L” word itself is never spoken with much of the passion and yearning expressed by mere actions. For what we have here is a deeply forbidden love played out in the Midwest of the Nineteen Sixties where the sexual revolution has yet to hit and two lovers are ultimately forced to deny their true feelings and face the demoralizing conventions of married life.
A great deal of the film’s success can be attributed to the dual performances from Gyllenhaal and Ledger who imbue Jack and Ennis with a raw vulnerability that is as powerfully magnetic as it is heartbreakingly tragic. But plaudits should also be handed out to the sterling supporting cast with both Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway delivering wonderfully nuanced performances as Alma and Lureen the respective wives caught up in this affair and Randy Quaid as Joe Aguirre, the deeply homophobic rancher whose hiring of Jack and Ennis unwittingly sets the story in motion.
Beautifully lensed by Mexican born cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto the sweeping vistas and lush panoramas seem at once to echo the candour and honesty of Jack and Ennis’ flourishing relationship adding a heightened sense of freedom, release and emotional abandon to their precious time together and one that subsequently works in stark contrast to their time apart and the ritualistic ennui of everyday life that sees these two lovers forced to adhere to soul-crushing ideals and expectations. For whilst the all-encompassing triumvirate of homophobia, bigotry and prejudice are very much at the forefront of their minds Jack and Ennis are equally fighting against the monotony and stagnation of their increasingly unsatisfactory lives.
And thus “Brokeback Mountain” emerges a desperately sad story of two wasted lives. Jake ultimately becomes a sell-out, working for his obnoxious father-in-law selling farm machinery whilst Ennis turns into a grumpy and taciturn old cowpoke and their true selves become ever more poignantly inaccessible with each unsatisfactory holiday they spend together. When Ennis visits Jack’s parents near the end of the movie and silently weeps over the sight of a bloodstained shirt the sheer breadth of emotion, remorse and sorrow contained within such a simple action is testament to the undeniable talent of the late, great Heath Ledger.
A rare talent Ledger is likely to be remembered more for his jaw-dropping performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” yet as Ennis he delivers what is, quite possibly, one of the finest performances of the last decade imbuing his performance with an unflinching frankness and honesty. A quiet and stoic man Ennis is both deeply troubled and scared about his feelings for Jack, his fears borne from a childhood memory involving the torture and murder of a suspected homosexual. “My dad, he made sure me and my brother saw it.”, Ennis tells Jack, “For all I know, he did it.”
Arguably Lee’s most accomplished film to date “Brokeback Mountain” is an achingly tragic masterpiece that offers us a universal love story that is sure to break even the toughest of hearts. Ultimately, Jack and Ennis’ tale is one of deep regret and how such regret can not only touch the lives of those afflicted by it, but everyone else around them.
“Bottom line is … we’re around each other an’ … this thing, it grabs hold of us again … at the wrong place … at the wrong time … and we’re dead.”
Track #4 – “HE WAS A FRIEND OF MINE”
Written and Performed by Willie Nelson