October 2, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

What makes a film worthy to win Best Picture? It’s a silly question and essentially meaningless given the politics, but it comes to mind when thinking about Brokeback Mountain. The 2006 awards season pointed to an Oscar win for the Ang Lee film, and it was stunning to watch Crash bring home the prize. Given all the votes involved in choosing the winner, it’s problematic to read too much into the Academy’s choice. Regardless, their pick has not aged well and frequently appears on lists of the worst Best Picture winners. That may not be fair to Paul Haggis’ film, but it’s no stretch to say that nominees like Good Night, and Good Luck and Brokeback Mountain have had longer staying power. The fact that the latter was chosen for my Blind Spots series gives a clear indication of where it stands.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as cowboys that meet in 1963 and strike up a romance. Ennis and Jack are the stoic men of a different era and wouldn’t seem out of place in the Old West. They’re living in a modern culture that forces them to scrounge for odd jobs to make ends meet, however. Mainstream society isn’t ready to accept them as a couple. It’s a culture of fear where discovery can lead to more than ridicule. Being different can lead to a brutal death, and there’s little these guys can do. Ennis recognizes the situation and pulls so far within himself that he barely exists. His words come out as quiet grumbles, and there’s little joy to experience. Jack is more up front and willing to take chances, but that creates its own set of problems. Across the decades, they get married and have families. Daily life is misery, and only the short “fishing trips” give them the respite to keep living.

Michelle Williams as Alma in Brokeback Mountain

Lee’s film focuses on the absence of happiness and how it damages these men. They try to live a normal life by society’s standards, but memories of the brief meetings aren’t enough. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and has two beautiful daughters, but the joys are few and far between. Instead of providing comfort, the kids are screaming obstacles. We don’t see the happy moments for the girls, and things only get worse once Alma discovers his secret. It’s frustrating to watch them try to confine to social norms because it just creates stress and anger. Ennis drinks too much and walks meekly through his home, and his demeanor only changes when Jack arrives. It’s a rough experience for him but just as bad for Alma, who quietly endures his lack of interest. Williams does a brilliant job showing the sadness that keeps growing until their inevitable divorce.

There’s less time spent with Jack and his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), but there are subtle hints of their downward spiral. Lureen is a force of nature in her first appearance as a rodeo rider and has one of those giant personalities that can’t be contained. There’s less excitement from her after they marry, and she’s reduced to sitting behind an adding machine and watching their money dwindle. It’s a sour life that isn’t in the same condition as Ennis’ marriage but is hardly thrilling. Adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, the screenplay from Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana shows the negative impact on more than Jack and Ennis. They’re forced to try and adapt, and it just leads to pain for everyone.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee

Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Alberta, and the incredible scenery creates a classic feel. Ennis and Jack can be themselves in these isolated spots, though staying there forever is a fading dream. These shots contrast sharply with the constrictive moments at home. We feel trapped inside the houses right along with the characters. The camera moves closer and gives the impression that the walls are closing in around them. The final scene at Ennis’ trailer makes it feel like he’s living inside a small box. The wide-open spaces of nature may be right outside, but he remains within the cramped home. The Oscar-winning score from Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel) plays in the background as Ennis recalls happier times. The promise of freedom is still there, but it’s been lost along with his friend.

10 comments:

  1. Excellent review, but I have to be completely honest. I hate this movie. I roll my eyes whenever anyone, which is to say everyone, says it should have beaten out Crash for Best Pic. I don't think Crash should've won, either, but Brokeback was worse than that. The biggest problem for me is that the director went full blown Ang Lee and made a poorly paced movie that often felt like watching paint dry. He often has that effect on me. The story never connected for me and didn't feel terribly different than if one of the two cowboys were female. If you do that and sub in her angry brothers for the hate mob crowd and we're left with the same movie and whole lot less hoopla. And since my defense mechanisms automatically kick in whenever I discuss this movie, I have to mention that there are two other movies released the very same year, exploring GLBT lifestyles that I enjoyed immensely: TransAmerica and Mysterious Skin. I would've been fully on board with a Best Pic nom for the latter in place of Brokeback.

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    1. Thanks for the great comment. My wife watched Brokeback Mountain with me and didn't like it very much either. I thought it was good, particularly as an acting showcase and because of the cinematography. Of course, it is also paced very slowly. You bring up a good point that it's hardly a landmark in some ways, though the difference is that it was distributed to a larger audience. That isn't an argument that it's a better film; it's one of the reasons it's more well-known. My vote for 2005 for Best Picture is easily Good Night, and Good Luck, and neither of the top picks would be up there. Still, it's hard to get too riled up about the awards after being disappointed so many times.

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  2. Reading Wendell's comment here has made me feel a little more secure in stating that I too didn't care too much for this film. I can't go as far as to say that I hated it, but share the same reasons as Wendell. Didn't feel a connection to the story or the "plight" of the two cowboys. It has been a long time since I first (and last) saw Brokeback, but nothing about that first viewing evokes much of any sort of memories or a need/want to see it again. Sure the cinematography was beautiful, but that's probably my only standout for the film.

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    1. That's cool. I'm not sure that I'll rush to see it again, though I'm glad that I finally caught up with it. Like I mentioned to Wendell, I feel like the actors really sold it. Heath Ledger in particular did a lot with very little. I do have any issues with it not working for anyone, though. It's hardly a slam dunk.

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  3. I felt stunned when I first saw Brokeback Mountain. I did feel a connection with the two lead characters, and perhaps for that reason, the film had an extremely powerful feeling, to me. I know what it is like to hide your true self from other people. I liked the acting, the soundtrack, and the wonderful scenery. It all combined to create something truly special, in my opinion. This is a film that will endure, and continue to affect viewers.

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    1. Glad to hear it! It's definitely had more staying power than a lot of films that came out at the same time.

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  4. FYI, various websites have published claims that parts of BBM were filmed in Wyoming; however, none have published photos in support of those claims. The only scene that was filmed in the USA is the "Juarez skyline" which is in La Mesilla, New Mexico, USA. For an exhaustive look at BBM filming locations see www.FindingBrokeback.com .

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    1. Thanks for the info. I've adjusted the post to match that fact. Cheers!

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  5. Responding to Wendell, the fact you say the film "didn't feel terribly different than if one of the two cowboys were female," might be why you thought the film was slow-paced or worse. You perhaps didn't understand or didn't relate to the unique problem of living one's life in the closet that this film explores, a problem that a male and female would not have experienced. Dan is spot on in recognizing this when he writes: "It’s frustrating to watch them try to confine to social norms because it just creates stress and anger." Watching this play out in the film breaks most audiences hearts.

    I have noticed that older people (40+) respond more to this film than others, gay or straight. Besides the gay aspect of the film, there are universal truths exposed in it that are more common with life experience like doing things others (family, society) expect of you that may not be right for yourself, loveless marriages, lost and unrequited loves, giving up or letting go of your own dreams...things that younger audiences cannot relate to, as they haven't experienced such things, so they find boring. (The film Amour anyone?)

    There's a reason that the choice of Best Film for 2005 was nearly unanimous with critics and groups that award best film prizes, 25 (or so) wins for Best Film, while a smattering of other films won one here and there. It's because of the way the award season played out that year that I disagree with this line that you wrote, Dan: "Given all the votes involved in choosing the winner, it’s problematic to read too much into the Academy’s choice." I disagree, that award season was such an aberration compared to the way any other has played out that it's clear that homophobia played some part in it. But that's another 1,000 articles.

    Thanks for listening,
    Martin Pal

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  6. I have to agree with Martin Pal's excellent response. I'd never noticed the age difference before, but that does explain why some people hate the film and others rate it so highly. It is not movie with a single car crash, or explosion. That explains a lot. I identified so immediately and strongly with one character's situation, my enthusiasm kept me from seeing that it's still different strokes for different folks.

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