Movie review: ‘Brokeback Mountain'

EntertainmentMoviesHeath LedgerJake GyllenhaalAnne HathawayMovie IndustryGenres

3½ stars (out of four)

The Western genre's big skies and limitless visual capacity for loneliness have enveloped nearly a century's worth of stories, all kinds, about flinty survivors learning that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. "Brokeback Mountain," a good and eloquent Wyoming-set love story with a great performance at its heart, is part of that classical filmmaking tradition. It is also prime Oscar bait. Already the film has won the best picture prize from the New York and Los Angeles film critics and snagged a lion's share of Golden Globe nominations.

Shooting largely in Alberta, Canada's gorgeous mountain terrain, director Ang Lee, alongside his awestruck cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, proves as punch-drunk on the metaphoric and literal payoffs that come with riding the high country as Sam Peckinpah did in "Ride the High Country" (1962). In "Brokeback Mountain," taken from the short story by Annie Proulx, the mountain in question serves as a love nest, a reckoning place and a world apart from the one a few thousand feet lower.

There is a twist, of which you may have heard. Proulx's story, narratively spare but rife with poetic embroidery on the page, is about a couple of ranch hands, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. They meet in 1963, spend a summer herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain, mostly on their own, and eventually fall in love. More surprising, especially to themselves, they act on it.

Across 20 years a furtive and aching series of reunions bring Ennis and Jack back into each other's orbit. Theirs is a passion they cannot fully explain, either to each other or anyone else. As Ennis says, "if you can't fix it you've got to stand it."

The relationship unfurls in the nooks, crannies and context of the characters' "real" lives. Ennis marries Alma, with whom he has two daughters. Alma works at the local supermarket and makes the best of things living above the laundromat with a man who doesn't say much. Jack, a rodeo circuit rider, lives in Texas and marries Lureen, a farm equipment dealer's daughter, with whom he has a son. Ennis and Jack lead conventional heterosexual lives, yet they cannot let go of each other. They embark on their precipice of an affair declaring to each other that they're "not queer." The screenplay, expanded from Proulx's short story by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, observes some interesting corners and ripple effects of such a declaration, especially as it affects the wives of men who travel the high country, the low country and the down-low country.

The world director Lee shows us in "Brokeback Mountain" may be as remote to his own personal experience as, say, the post-Cheever Connecticut malaise in "The Ice Storm" (one of my favorite Lee pictures). But he is a patient director who calmly meets each story on its own terms. He may go a little nuts with the iconic cowboy imagery, but he has the cast to make the icons resemble actual human beings.

Heath Ledger is a revelation as Ennis. Where did he come from, this 26-year-old Australian-born actor who creates such a full and convincing portrait of a man who excels at burying his torment? In retrospect we could've seen it coming. In everything from the pleasant "Taming of the Shrew" redux "10 Things I Hate About You," to the weepy-gory saga "The Patriot" to the frenetic "Brothers Grimm," Ledger kept his head down, let his instincts guide him toward some subtlety and got better each time. In "Brokeback Mountain" it all pays off. He fashions a characterization that draws you in with each wary glance, or flick of a cigarette's ash, or halting admission of what he's going through. It's a tight-lipped drawl of a performance, literally, yet it doesn't feel hoked-up or pre-programmed. Lovely work.

Jake Gyllenhaal at this point is no Heath Ledger. He works to the best of his rather limited abilities as Jack; he does, however, create a convincing rapport with Ledger's Ennis. The women fare wonderfully, led by Michelle Williams (Alma), Anne Hathaway (Lureen) and, as a waitress who gets involved with Ennis, Linda Cardellini, a long and impressive way from the "Scooby-Doo" pictures.

The film isn't without its travelogue moments, and it does go on a bit longer than it has the story to. That story, as expanded here, is least interesting when Ennis and Jack reunite, over and over, at their beloved fishing spot. "Brokeback Mountain" needs those scenes, but it comes alive when Ennis and Jack are living the lives to which they cannot confine themselves, struggling for a sense of place.

Movies often engage in conversation with other movies, whatever their locale. "Brokeback Mountain" begins in 1963, the year "Hud"--which holds up beautifully, by the way--introduced its generation to a newfangled, wised-up kind of Western, an elegy for its own genre. "Hud," set in Texas cattle country, came from McMurtry's debut novel, "Horseman, Pass By." Now, it is co-screenwriter McMurtry's adaptation of "Brokeback Mountain" that is giving audiences a new definition of Western iconoclasm. "Brokeback Mountain" begins just as "Hud" did: with a solo guitar line and a car on a highway, an image of the changing West incarnate.

It's too bad "Brokeback Mountain" composer Gustavo Santaolalla didn't restrain himself the way Elmer Bernstein did on "Hud." Once Ennis and Jack get off on their own the movie nearly drowns in orchestral strings. Yet director Lee and his best performers have a way of cutting through its own occasional bouts of dross, musical or otherwise. By the last scene, a coda for Ennis and his grown daughter, you believe everything Ledger is telling you by way of a marvelously understated performance. You believe he has aged half a lifetime. You understand a bit of the guarded loner behind all the half-smiles and muttered apologies. And you believe this rugged individualist did what he had to do.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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`Brokeback Mountain'

Directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on the short story by Annie Proulx; cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto; production design by Judy Becker; music by Gustavo Santaolalla; edited by Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor; produced by Ossana and James Schamus. A Focus Features and River Road Entertainment release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:14. MPAA rating: R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence.

Ennis Del Mar - Heath Ledger

Jack Twist - Jake Gyllenhaal

Alma Beers Del Mar - Michelle Williams

Lureen Newsome Twist - Anne Hathaway

Joe Aguirre - Randy Quaid

Cassie Cartwright - Linda Cardellini

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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