The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Brokeback Mountain

Reviewed by James MacDowell.

Director Ang Lee
Length 134 mins
Certificate 15
Rating **********
Filmmaking: 5  Personal enjoyment: 5

Photo from the article Few seemed to be optimistic when first word appeared of a "gay western" directed by the recently-humiliated (following Hulk [2003]) Ang Lee and starring new Hollywood pinup boys Jake Gyllenhaal and Heth Ledger. Surely the idea was too farcical, too strange, too hysterically PC - surely it just wouldn’t work? Happily, such cynics will be forced to eat their words. Brokeback Mountain in fact feels like an instant modern classic, destined to go down in history not only for being a turning point in the depiction of homosexuality in Hollywood, but also for being simply one of the most moving cinematic love stories of its decade.

The film follows the lives of two young men, Jack and Ennis, from their first meeting in 1963 as Summer-job sheepherders on a cold and lonely Wyoming mountain. We watch them in this beautiful and desolate landscape as monosyllabic niceties give way to playful friendship which in turn gives way to passion. For all the heartrending drama that is to come, it is perhaps in these early scenes in which the frankly astounding performances of both Ledger and Gyllenhaal impress the very most. The subtlety with which these men are shown to shed their standoffish exteriors, momentarily melting into a relationship that feels tender and true, is perfectly nuanced and effortlessly carries the kind of raw emotional weight that so many romance films strive for and so few achieve.

As time passes, and as Jack and Ennis’ lives begin to lead in different directions, the film surreptitiously morphs into a quietly sweeping epic, taking in more characters, different time periods and different locations, whilst always keeping the central focus on the two lovers. Admirably - even in the case of smaller characters who might be sidelined in another film of such scope - the script seldom takes anything less than a generous view of anyone, allowing each actor the chance to create a fully believable person. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway in particular do wonders in bringing to life the women who would so often be written out of another kind of film. Yet even smaller characters like Ennis’ sometime girlfriend and Jack’s latter-life gay fling are economically but beautifully drawn, managing to hint in the smallest of ways at a whole world of emotion just beneath the surface, just as does the whole film.

Lee’s camera breaths empathy and understanding into every one of its shots, whether it be a tender and painful close-up or a grand vista, showing his intelligence and flair for unforced visual symbolism has not lessened since perhaps his last truly great film, The Ice Storm (1997). It has become cliché to suggest that it takes a foreigner’s eye to truly see a country, but never has it seemed truer than for the Taiwanese-born director’s melancholic vision of the States here. The lakes, mountains, highways, farms, rodeos, bars, people all resonate with the feeling of a weighty and constricting social propriety clashing against a raw, natural, hopeful vision of how things could be.

The bottom line is that Brokeback Mountain is a serious cinematic achievement that is not only important, but also deeply beautiful and deeply enjoyable. If you care at all about modern film, you really must see this.

This review was published on January 09, 2006.

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