Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Heath Ledger, Jake
Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid
Director: Ang Lee
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Focus Features
Features: See Review
Length: 134 Minutes
Release Date: January 23, 2007
“I wish I knew how to quit you.”
The controversy may never end…as if Brokeback Mountain didn’t have enough just by being a film about gay cowboys (or is that shepherds, since they tend sheep instead of cows?), now we may be going over its Oscar night loss to Crash for some time to come.
Many have argued that Brokeback lost because Hollywood, despite its progressive-sounding rhetoric, wasn’t really ready to recognize a movie about homosexuality. I don’t know…it could very well be. But as someone who saw both films, all I can say is the Academy made the right choice, even if for the wrong reasons…Crash was a great film, and Brokeback Mountain was not.
I expected to like the film more than I did for many reasons…I’m a huge fan of Ang Lee, Heath Ledger and Anne Hathaway. Mr. Ledger and Ms. Hathaway didn’t disappoint. But Mr. Lee was another story. The talented director simply served up a movie that wasn’t worthy of his reputation. And it had nothing to do with the subject matter.
Jack (Gyllenhaal) meets Ennis (Ledger) when both hook up for a job tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain. The days are tedious and the nights are cold, and the conversation banal. But it all changes when one night they both decide to share the tent to get away from the elements.
The scene is absurd…both men are asleep, and one rolls over and puts his arm around the other. They awake with a start, and immediately rip their clothes off and engage in furious sex. Gayness has nothing to do with it…had this been a movie starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the scene wouldn’t have been any more probable or less preposterous.
Thus begins a ‘relationship’ that exists for decades, mostly in the shadows and away from prying eyes. Both men get married: Ennis to Alma (Williams) and Jack to Lureen (Hathaway). Ennis and Alma even have kids. But one day he gets a postcard out of the blue that Jack is coming up. They pick right up where they left off, and Ennis never knows that Alma glimpses their secret.
What follows is mostly mundane and routine. What we have here is a by-the-numbers forbidden love story that, had it been made in the 60s, would have been about an interracial couple, or even ten years ago, about lovers of different faiths. There’s nothing wrong with the concept…it’s merely that we’ve seen it done before, and done better.
It’s hard to get into the idea of Jack and Ennis being in love when they only have a moment together here and there over several decades. When they get together, it’s mostly physical. It feels more like a movie about obsession than love. I couldn’t call this movie a romance any more than I could do so with 9 ½ Weeks.
People lavished praise on the movie for its daring take on a somewhat still taboo subject, but I never could get on the bandwagon. As Roger Ebert likes to say, a film isn’t great because of what it’s about, but because of how it’s about it. I have no problem with what the movie is about. But I have many issues with “how it’s about it”.
It’s a long, flat picture with a few moments of life here and there, which for me, weren’t enough to really break the monotony. The four principal actors were all superb, and the Oscar nominations for Ledger, Gyllenhaal and Williams were very well deserved. The nomination for Ang Lee was far less so, much less his eventual win for Best Director. For a Western picture, the cinematography was strikingly lacking, opting for a more dank overall look than the rich palates of a John Ford movie. The story fumbles its way forward, trying to find something to give it forward thrust (no pun intended), but only stumbles across it now and then before losing its footing once more.
Though it’s no fault of the movie itself, equally frustrating was the big publicity brouhaha and the critical swarm surrounding it. Suddenly, Brokeback Mountain was a litmus test by which those who claimed to have more open minds could judge everybody else. If you dared say you didn’t like the movie, as I have done many times, your motives were immediately called into question. Frankly, I have too much respect for the art of criticism to kowtow to a runaway agenda that sweeps everything up in its wake when I don’t think the movie is very good.
I’m not here to review agendas or social statements. I’m here to assess if a picture is any good or not. I firmly believe in a few years when the controversy dies down, people will look back on Brokeback Mountain as they eventually did with Driving Miss Daisy, Rain Man, The English Patient or Chariots of Fire, and finally admit that it was all much ado about nothing…it wasn’t a good enough film for so many people to throw their social conscience behind it. The Academy may be feeling the heat right now, but in the years to come they’ll realize they would have more to be embarrassed about had they actually awarded the big prize to this picture.
The time has long been ripe for a major film to explore homosexuality as a serious subject. But as with many first attempts at anything, Brokeback Mountain stumbles awkwardly toward the finish line and never really reaches the goal. It could have been about a heterosexual relationship and been just as meandering and lifeless.
It’s character and story that matters most, not social agenda. When Ang Lee and all the well-meaning but misguided film critics start remembering that, we may just get a movie about gay lovers that will really be worthy of accolade.
I was pleased to find the movie actually looks better on DVD than it did in the theatre. I’m becoming more and more convinced that theatres under-light their projectors in an attempt to make the bulbs last longer. The images weren’t quite as dingy looking as I remembered…the outdoor photography is still not as good as it should have been, but the images render with more clarity and detail. Some of the darker campfire scenes have less definition and a bit more grain.
It’s essentially a dialogue-driven movie, but the 5.1 soundtrack delivers well. Spoken words are generally clean and clear, though I still have difficulty registering some parts of Heath Ledger’s mumbling dialect (viva subtitles!). The Oscar winning score is simple and tasteful, and adds to the listening experience.
The disc contains a making-of featurette, as well as ones on the writers Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, being a cowboy, and Ang Lee, plus a look at those who contributed to the music and interviews with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Whenever social or political implications overshadow the art, we’ve got a problem. Brokeback Mountain gave so many socially conscience people an excuse to cheer that I don’t know if they even cared whether or not the film was truly good. But the movie’s troubles have nothing to do with its subject matter and everything to do with the art of filmmaking. It may take years, but eventually the din of critical breast beating will die down and many will finally begrudgingly admit what I’ve openly proclaimed here: it’s just not that good a picture.