Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) — 10 Years Later

Spoiler alert:  It’s assumed that readers of this review have already seen “Brokeback Mountain.”  Discussion will include the movie’s ending.

Revisiting Brokeback Mountain after 10 years feels a bit like an archeological dig.  After all, director Ang Lee’s film about a pair of covert cowboy gay lovers has more socio-cultural layers of meaning to burrow through than most movies.

When Brokeback Mountain hit American theaters in 2005, it had been 12 years since a heavily gay-themed movie had secured wide release and a goodly amount of critical acclaim.  Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, while bold for its time, focused on the discriminatory injustice foisted upon Tom Hanks’ AIDS-afflicted character, and the resulting bond with his homophobic attorney, played by Denzel Washington.  In taking this safer route, Hanks’ connection to his longtime partner felt like an afterthought, with minimal public displays of affection between the two.

By comparison, the animalistic, caution-to-the-wind magnetism between Brokeback’s Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is graphically depicted.  Their lust and physical attraction clearly precedes their lifelong emotional bond.

It feels necessary, too, to situate Brokeback Mountain’s release in the American cultural milieu of its era.  The 1998 torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, the state where Brokeback Mountain takes place, was still fresh in many people’s minds.  The absurdly named Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, remained in effect.  In 2005, only the state of Massachusetts was issuing marriage licenses to gay couples desiring to wed.

What a difference 10 years makes!  Same-sex marriage is, of this writing, legal in 37 states.  Even in the heart of Bible Belt country, my kids come home from high school and casually speak of friends and classmates who comfortably self-identify as gay or bisexual.

Meanwhile, at the cineplex, committed same-sex relationships are much more routinely portrayed.  Long-term gay partnerships have been dysfunctional in mediocre movies (The Kids Are Alright) and exemplary in superb films (Love Is Strange).

The beautiful landscapes of "Brokeback Mountain"
The beautiful landscapes of “Brokeback Mountain”

With that brief cultural primer behind us, it’s time to consider how Brokeback Mountain has weathered the past 10 years.  Unfortunately, a decade’s perspective has diminished it slightly, so my assessment contains a mixed bag of plaudits and detractions.

I’ll start with the negatives.  With this most recent viewing, I found it hard to connect with Brokeback’s two leads.  Aside from their intense need to be with each other, Ennis and Jack’s emotional states and motivations are dissatisfyingly opaque.

To be fair, some of this is undoubtedly due to the reality that these characters lead inarticulate, unexamined lives.  With Ennis, for instance, nausea and blind rage substitute for longing and grief.  Nonetheless, Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s characters are not solely to blame for this failing; some responsibility resides with the director and screenwriters.

Additionally, I now find the acting in Brokeback uneven.  Jake Gyllenhaal may sometimes succeed in carrying a film (October Sky, Nightcrawler), but here he unconvincingly lives in the skin of Jack Twist.  I rarely forgot I was watching an actor playing a slick yet tormented man.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, together in "Brokeback Mountain"
Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, together in “Brokeback Mountain”

As Jack’s wife Lureen, Anne Hathaway somnambulates as her standard screen persona, the smug wisecracker who feels superior to everyone else in the room.  Even though she did passably well as Interstellar’s Amelia, I can’t recall the last time Hathaway wowed me in a movie role.

On the other hand, Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams still impress as the impoverished, unhappily married Ennis and Alma.  Ledger is believably tightly wound, bearing a lifetime of unease on his shoulders.  Williams, likewise, cuts a plausibly tragic figure, mousy and overwhelmed, barely coping with her secret knowledge of Ennis’ assignations with Jack.

The visuals created by Ang Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto have stood the test of time, too.  The contrast of the big sky and gorgeous vistas experienced by Ennis and Jack when together, versus the ugly and claustrophobic interiors when apart, remains a potent metaphor.

Best of all, perhaps, is the perfect framing of Brokeback Mountain’s final scene.  Ennis, alone in his trailer, opens his closet.  Hanging on the inside of its door, shrine-like, are a pair of shirts once worn by Ennis and Jack, along with a picture postcard of “their” mountain.  Behind the closet door, a window beckons with a view of the lovely Wyoming outdoors, as Ennis resides in his dingy prison.

The final scene of "Brokeback Mountain"
The final scene of “Brokeback Mountain”

With the concluding fade to black, we’re aware again of the excellent music by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla.  Its country-western acoustic lilt matches splendidly with the story.  It’s no wonder that Santaolalla won the Oscar in 2006 for Best Original Score.

In the narrative department, Brokeback Mountain stays a winner, too.  Stories of star-crossed lovers have appealed to viewers since at least Romeo and Juliet.  Whether a Capulet-Montague bonding, the interracial engagement of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, or the romance between Ennis and Jack, love that challenges societal taboos is a perpetually alluring subject.

Beginning in 1963 and spanning more than 20 years of its characters’ lives, Brokeback Mountain sustained my interest once again.  Despite their characters’ opacity, I couldn’t help but feel moved by Ennis’ monastic isolation and Jack’s anonymous couplings, driven by their inability to express their love safely in public.

The sadness of their secretive decades (not to mention the wreckage of their marriages) exceeds any LGBT public service announcement in expressing the tragedy of baseless stigma and the toxic consequences of a double life.  With Brokeback Mountain, the movies reassert their power as empathy generators and questioners of a hurtful status quo.

4 out of 5 stars

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