Happy Valentine’s Day! (?)
Brokeback Mountain is a story of two sheepherders, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who develop a relationship that endures through decades, marriages, work issues, children, and other “obstacles.” Overflowing with cinematic wonders as well as glaring narrative issues, the movie feels divided against itself and is ultimately more underwhelming than any amount of controversy set against it would really warrant.
Breathe in the fresh air
I don’t often talk about a film’s production values ahead of the story, but they really are Brokeback’s saving grace, especially since the early sections of the plot are handed out very slowly. The vistas and other nature scenes in this movie are incredible, as are the scenes with tons of animals–and there’s little else that needs saying about these amazing moments. The opening of the movie largely lacks dialogue, but it does a fantastic job of making the watching of everyday life feel compelling. The story itself starts with young adults Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and the older-looking Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) tending sheep for one Joe Aguirre, a discipline-valuing but unscrupulous individual who assigns the boys work parameters that don’t always seem legal.
Jack and Ennis reveal a few of their hobbies and details about their past, and the movie becomes “business as usual” as the men chop trees and perform other chores. Because of their differing work positions, the boys have separate sleeping camps. Over breakfast one morning, Ennis reveals that he will marry Alma, a girl we don’t see or hear from until their wedding day, and the ornery Jack launches into a complaint about Aguirre’s procedures, his first of many (about everything, including Ennis). Ennis, meanwhile, tends to be very quiet; notably his father has a very crude opinion of rodeo cowboys, which both men have some experience being.
Much but not all of the film’s explicit content is concentrated toward its beginning–we see the boys nude from the side and rear, and during one cold night, Jack grabs Ennis’ hand and cuddles it around him. The two take their jackets off (but little else, not even their pants in this context) before pawing at each other and breathing so heavily as to remind me of the asthma attacks I had as a child. Their intercourse looks pained and forceful, not alluring, and much of it is out of the camera’s view. Later views of heterosexual encounters oddly receive more direct exposure than the main couple’s do.
The world keeps on turning
Something has gruesomely eaten part of a sheep. The insides are unpleasant to witness, but their depiction “prepares” viewers for other gory moments (involving humans) in what can be an unexpectedly violent film. One person later has his genitals torn off–we see the hole where they once were and hear very graphic descriptions–and several people receive very bloody wounds, some of them mortal. One of Jack’s and Ennis’ romantic encounters leads to a half-playful fistfight whose intensity can be a bit frightening, and an unrelated individual ends up in a fight filled with profanity and harsh sexual terms, complete with crying children looking on.
Ennis tells Jack the latent lie, that their encounter is to be one time only, and both men say they’re not ‘queer.’ Both men clearly have a lot of built-up longing, which should be easy to understand and sympathize with even for people who don’t approve of homosexuality. As their work period ends, complete with Joe Aguirre being aware of their “secret” and condemning its admitted interference of their work, the men go their separate ways and begin the rest of their lives–to a degree. Ennis and his fiancée Alma (Michelle Williams) marry, but even after the contract is sealed, the men remain fiercely attached to each other.
The film fast-forwards several years, and Ennis now has two girls, Jenny and Alma Junior. At this point he and his wife are still very much in love, and we see a short portion of their own clothed intimate encounter. Jack, meanwhile, has gone back to the rodeo, lasting four seconds on a bull before being rescued by his clown. Afterward, the former offers to buy the latter a drink while also giving him a rather lewd gaze. The rodeo clown is not amused. Jack eventually meets the feisty Lureen, played by Anne Hathaway, and that same day they begin a romantic and sexual relationship (she’s seen topless momentarily before the movie cuts away).
One of this film’s most recurring themes is loneliness: the men are unable to find true intimacy without one another, and Alma worries about her girls growing up without friends in school. After one character gets divorced, his ex-wife and children worry similarly about him. Another theme is abruptness: beyond Jack’s and Lureen’s actions, he and Ennis get very little story foreshadowing before their own relationship becomes intense. Lureen at least asks if she should restrain herself. Things in this movie tend to happen because the story needs them to, especially in scenes when Jack and Ennis argue bitterly about one thing or another, not because any of these characters–not just the boys–take so much as five minutes for the most part to think about the consequences of their words and behaviors. Playing into both of these themes, some scenes hint at one-night stands and multiple additional layers of infidelity.
Haste makes waste
Years later, the very first day Ennis’ wife Alma meets Jack, she sees the two men kissing forcefully and smoulders in anger from a distance. Twist and Del Mar make up excuses to spend time together, and they end up in a motel room; both men treat their marriages as a burden, and the movie becomes a sort of moral antithesis of a story like WALL-E, as these two men learn patience and sacrifice only in the sense of putting their marriages on the pyre for the sake of their ongoing affair. This looks especially forced during one scene where Jack and Ennis are desperately negotiating how to spend time together as the negative effects of their adulteries begin to catch up with them. Neither man was forced by anyone to marry or to do many of the other things they do, however, and these two characters rarely if ever admit responsibility for the events of their own making that the film treats as “unfortunate circumstances.”
Frankly the two men don’t seem especially concerned for many people other than each other, including their wives and children, and one character’s own marriage becomes physically and verbally abusive, making for some of the most universally unpleasant “romance” I’ve seen in a movie since last year’s God’s Not Dead. These personalities aren’t particularly complex, making their harsh behavioral distinctions and sudden intense conflicts seem unexplained and arbitrary.
The movie tries to prop up Jack’s and Ennis’ relationship as the solution to their problems and their biggest priority, but like it or not, they did make marital commitments to their wives that both men make little effort to keep, and the film’s insistent “it-just-happened” approach to relationships belittles each individual’s personal responsibility even as the story itself is very blunt about how these early events have disastrous results. There is one couple in this whole film whom I would argue clearly built their relationship on mutual respect and admiration, and neither of the main characters benefits from it. Much of this movie can be summed up as follows: People meet, develop intense desires for one another, have quick romances or sexual encounters, then have massive falling-outs with each other. Then they sometimes have dramatic reconciliations and sometimes don’t. Of the central four characters, only one of them doesn’t receive direct physical or verbal abuse, instead winding up neglected.
It must be said that the film’s most consistent and incredible success lies in its many technical victories–the music is calm and inspiring, the scenery remains so gorgeous that even an austere house looks familiar enough to have lived in it all your life, the makeup to show character aging looks incredible, most of the film is simply a joy to watch, and the acting is superb, especially of course from Ledger. From a moviemaking perspective, this production is a remarkable success, but regardless of your personal politics or beliefs, the story is done no favors by its often disturbing portrayal of its characters and their relationships, most of which have some sort of illicit element. Ultimately I’m reminded of James Cameron’s Avatar, where I found the production values masterful and many of the characters or their personalities very difficult to like, and I’d consider that to be an appropriate summation of Brokeback Mountain.
For all of this film’s immense critical acclaim, and for all the hype controversy I remember seeing, I find myself indifferent to the final product, not so much because of the core premise but rather of how the story effectively squanders it: the plot divides itself between being a brutal anti-adultery morality tale and contriving every reason it can to excuse the central couple’s behavior, then plays it off as a surprise when this infidelity causes numerous additional problems.
The movie really is beautiful, though. The scenes of sheep, horses, and other animals, few as they are, are a wonder to behold, even as many of these moments and their sometimes irrelevant characters don’t feel like they’re building up to the sort of epic climax that the film wants but doesn’t get. There’s plenty of tragedy, to be sure, but it’s more of an almost random occurrence than a matter of consequence. Ultimately my favorite moments from Brokeback Mountain could probably be found in a nature magazine, and the romance doesn’t seem anywhere near the level of a From Up on Poppy Hill, leaving little else of note. The film does do an excellent job of showing its characters’ gradual progression over many years, but to not much end, leading to a work where “simple” becomes easily confused with “poorly explained.” If you’re looking for a selfless love story, deep characterizations, and intriguing subplots, you may have to look elsewhere.