Brokeback Mountain (2005)

NOTE: I have seen this movie just before the Oscars, after a long string of award wins. I’m posting this review late on purpose – waiting for the Oscar craze to die down, as well as all the hype surrounding the movie in the first place. Too much has been said about Brokeback’s loss to Crash already, and unfortunately, the loudest, most outrageous opinions stick around the longest. I’d like to correct them – some other time. Right now let’s go to Brokeback Mountain, let’s enjoy the movie for what it is, and let’s avoid cheap gay jokes for a few paragraphs. No promise on the last condition. While it’s an outstanding film, the last few weeks leading up to Oscars, and the subsequent backlash have been very-very illuminating for me. Showed the industry, the media and of course, the audiences in a slightly darker light. But i digress.

The movie has a lot of showbiz history. There was a positive, genuine buzz surrounding it at Toronto Film Fest last year, but I missed the gala, unfortunately. I had a feeling that I may need to see this film before there’s dozens of spotlights beaming across it. By the time it opened in wide release in December, it had enough attention, and managed to get on enough “top ten” lists to be qualified (IMHO) as hype. And I cannot stand hype, regardless of whether it’s deserved or not. If you remember, a year before, Sideways has done the same thing – came out of nowhere, and started collecting awards from all sides. Perhaps the two movies had the same marketing team, or same marketing idea – convincing people that they are the best movies ever made, instead of just being a movie. Sideways was a good, smart, honest film that unfortunately got over-hyped, over-extended, and over-praised. While I enjoyed it, it was somewhat disappointed by just how simple and compelling the story was. But then again, all great things should be simple.

To avoid the same disappointment, I waited for the hype to die down before I saw Brokeback. No such luck – January and February zoomed by, the movie was still playing in theaters, and every bloody day I’d read about yet another accolade. Time came to quickly jump into an empty theater and spend a few hours without any bias – so I can judge it, and our team here can make predictions for the Oscars. I think I succeeded, and came out of the theater an informed, entertained, saddened person. By the way, we ultimately chose “Crash” as the film of the year (among those nominated) and many of our contest entries fell short just in that one category. It’s good to be able to make informed decisions sometimes. Of course, the Oscars, or any other awards, or elections are famous for UNinformed decisions made by UNinmportant people, but that’s another rant altogether.

Basically, I liked the movie, DID NOT find it outstanding, and kept wondering how a dark horse like that got to grab so many headlines. It’s just a love story … between two men. What’s so groundbreaking about it? It’s not a cheesy romance (which takes away about a quarter of yearly new releases), and it’s not a soap opera (currently not playing in theaters). But it is very much a family drama – at least that’s the category it falls into. A family drama with some socio-political messages thrown in. North Country is the same kind of movie. Water, Pride & Prejudice, A History of Violence, Tsotsi. Sure, all of the above films have been nominated for this or that, but none have claimed (and been awarded) as much. Why? Because Brokeback is about gay men? What gives? I know that I may be inviting tons of critique by those who will immediately brand me homophobic, but I just don’t get why this subject can stand above others. It’s gotta be the subject of the film, because all other elements – directing, acting, photography are good, but not outstanding.

Here’s the good stuff. Amazing scenery – very romantic, incredible sequences of nature, wildlife, forests, rivers and of course, mountains. I have seen some of these places (as I traveled in British Columbia and Alberta), and they were captured without any tricks or FX – they’re really this overwhelming. You can lose yourself in a place like that – which makes many of the film’s ideas escapist and becomes so compelling and emotional, for so many people. You don’t need an exotic country to feel like a complete stranger, to turn inwards, and do some soul-searching inside – you just need to go fishing or camping. Either by yourself or with family or friends. I guess dragging the family up north every other weekend during the summer finally paid off now that it’s been glorified into a deep, spiritual, uplifting experience. Wait a minute, are we still talking about Brokeback Mountain Or March of the Penguins?

More good stuff – the performances. Jake Gyllenhall is the more sensitive, more adventurous of the two, always trying to bring their secret relationship into the open, to run a ranch together, and be comfortable with their lifestyle. As a cowboy in the 60s-80s America, it must have been tough to even consider a normal existence among others. But he keeps bringing it up, and the light in his eyes is so honest, so idyllic, it’s a real tearjerker. Heath Ledger – the more repressed, down to earth, full or self-hate and fear is also unbelievably good in his performance. He’s not quite the opposite of the two, but their time together on screen has so much love, and far beyond any combination of other actors. Ledger and Gyllenhaal upstage pretty much everyone in this film, and I would really like to see more of them, observe more of their times together, up there in the mountains. But, unfortunately, that’s not what the movie is about.

This movie has wives, relatives, the routine of work – that must be dealt with. There are other obligations, and any romantic escapism stops here. Homophobic attitudes, suspicious looks from behind the curtains, quiet sobs during the night – it’s the reality of a gay relationship in a repressed, male-oriented time. Delivered well, but with such a cold contrast to the first half of the movie, that I almost lost interest. Plus, the women are typically poorly written, and while Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams are trying their best, their lines are ridiculous, and they are best at not saying things. In fact, the second half of the film I enjoyed everything that was not being said – the silences. And you can’t build a compelling movie on a series of silences – unless of course they’re delivered by someone like Randy Quaid. His exchange with Jake Gyllenhaal set a very good tone early on by saying one thing and meaning something else – but that technique got diluted in the end.

That’s what it comes down to – many great elements – from actors, from script, from the cameraman, but overall it’s just not enough to be the best film of the year. Brokeback Mountain is a great-looking film, with a lot to offer. But it’s also a flawed, overly long period piece – it sets the elements in the right places, but doesn’t have much of a story beyond the “forbidden love” theme. A new twist – “forbidden gay love in the world of straights” doesn’t fly too far either. Watch it, but don’t expect much. It won’t stay with you the way all great movies do. The musical theme might stay, but the ideas, the emotions – they start strong, but fade out before the movie ends.

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