#17: Brokeback Mountain – Top 25 Films of the Decade

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Kate Mara

Directed By: Ang Lee

Why it made the list: It’d be cool if in the future, people will watch this movie and be baffled as to why it was so controversial (other than the controversy generated from the fact that the execrable Crash beat it for the 2005 Best Picture Oscar. Hopefully that will be even more baffling in the future than it was at the time). The controversy certainly helped the film gain enough attention to make an astounding $83 million domestically, an unheard sum for a quiet indie, never mind one of this subject matter. But the curiosity that drove people to see that “gay cowboy movie” also worked against it to a degree. If you went to it to see what all the fuss was about, it might not have been readily apparent, other than a semi-graphic love scene between the two male leads and the often-quoted and parodied “I wish I knew how to quit you” line.

I’ll admit, when I first saw it, I may have been judging it a least a bit by the hype than the finished product. It’s the danger you run into when you follow critical response but have to wait until smaller films get wide release to see them. It’s not that I dismissed the film as hype: I gave it a 4 star review and listed it in my top ten for the year, but I still underrated it, in part because I may have been expecting something bigger, something that calls more attention to itself.

It took subsequent viewings and reflection to realize that the greatness of Brokeback Mountain is that it doesn’t call more attention to itself; that it’s a film of big emotions, very few of which are played big. It’s a movie of characters repressing their emotions, of denying themselves and others their true selves, with Ang Lee‘s calm direction echoing the restraint of the script. Lee lets scenes breathe, not only to show off the breathtaking scenery that I could see by driving about an hour outside my house, but to fill the movie with the unsaid – quiet moments that at first seem loaded with possibility, but ultimately imbue the film with power and resonance that you might miss amongst all the controversy and hype that surrounding its release.

Spoiler Specifics: Much has been made about Ang Lee’s eclectic resume. There aren’t a lot of similarities between Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, or Sense and Sensibility. I’d say the consistent element in Lee’s filmmaking throughout his genre-hopping career is a sweeping romanticism. Brokeback has probably been oversold as a romance, with the film more about tragedy than it is about love. But it’s easy to mistake the film for a romance because of the romantic nature of Lee’s direction and Rodrigo Prieto‘s photography, which evoke the epic romantic movies of old time Hollywood.

Ultimately, the film is defined by the tragic realities that confront Ennis and Jack: the fact that over the decades that span the film, they’re only together a handful of times, how their attempts to play by society’s rules wind up making them and everyone in their lives miserable, and of course, the death of Jack Twist. The near oppressive sadness that dominates the movie has always made it difficult to rewatch. Heath Ledger‘s death has only made it more difficult. The superlative performance he displays in this film, so unlike anything else he’s done elsewhere, serves a sobering reminder of the talent the world lost in 2008. If it was Ennis that died instead of Jack? I’m not sure I’d ever be able to watch this movie again.

Of course, it would be a much worse film if Ennis died instead of Jack. Not to take away anything from Jake Gyllenhaal‘s performance, which brings passion to the otherwise measured performances every other character delivers, while having the difficult job of delivering most of the film’s exposition (because Jack Twist was the only character capable of doing so). But the heart of the film is how Ennis denies himself his true desires not only out genuine fear of violent societal reprisal, but also due to his own fear of himself. He’s a man who lacks the necessary faculties to deal with the complicated emotions he’s confronted with, and as a result of his own failings, must live a life of regret so perfectly summarized in the film’s final, brief line of dialogue. And it devastates me every time.

Significant scene: The most famous scene is the “I wish I knew how to quit you” blow-up between Jack and Ennis (much more powerful when watched in context). The defining scene is the final one described above. But the best scene is when Ennis visits the Twist Ranch after Jack’s death, ostensibly to offer to bring his ashes to Brokeback Mountain. This is Ennis at his most vulnerable, having just learned of Jack’s death from Lureen (Anne Hathaway), sitting in the kitchen of a man who clearly knows the score between he and Jack, who will only look at Ennis to sneer at him. Contrasted with Jack’s father is his mother, a true believer in the Pentecost (as Jack described her earlier in the film), also clearly aware of the relationship between Jack and Ennis, yet offering as much empathy and warmth as she can in her husband’s presence. As with everything in the film, the entire confrontation is subtle, with Ledger playing his overwhelming sorrow almost entirely internally, but it still radiates off him. His breakdown comes when alone in Jack’s boyhood room, and he comes across the jacket Jack wore when they were together up on Brokeback. Even here, Ennis doesn’t suddenly become a character prone to histrionics, as he silently weeps while trying to breathe in all that he’s lost. Ledger’s restraint in this scene is remarkable; instead of going big and cathartic, he stays small and heartbreaking. For Ennis Del Mar, silently asking to keep the jacket of his lover IS a monumental outpouring of emotion, and the film knows enough to keep the moment as quiet and suffocating as possible.

25. Up (2009)
24. The Hurt Locker (2009)
23. Lost in Translation (2003)
22. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
21. The Bourne Identity (2002)
20. Serenity (2005)
19. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
18. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

4 thoughts on “#17: Brokeback Mountain – Top 25 Films of the Decade

  1. I really enjoyed this film and I really enjoyed that homophobic rednecks that many of my characters are married to went to this movie due the hype. This movie being filmed locally allowed many people the opportunity to have discussions about gay rights which was great.

  2. Pingback: Top 25 Films of the Decade – The Full List « Critically Speaking

  3. Pingback: #12: Children of Men – Top 25 Films of the Decade « Critically Speaking

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