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Brokeback Mountain 9 February, 2006

Posted by monopod in Reviews, Writing.

This write-up has changed so much since I first wrote it that I’m reposting it (again – last edit 22 Feb at 1716 hrs). Each time there seems to be a little less self-conscious review and a little more unapologetic me in it. Though to be honest I don’t think I’ll ever get it quite right.

Brokeback Mountain
Brokeback Mountain
4 out of 5 stars
Write-up contains spoilers.

This wasn’t going to be a proper review, not because I didn’t want to do one, but because I started on one and then realised I didn’t have the language to bring together all the things I thought and felt about this film. (Although with the number of times I’ve rewritten and expanded this, it appears to fast be becoming a semblance of one.) Rolling Stone magazine, the Independent, Variety.com, the New York Review of Books and Damian McNicholl suffer no such problems with eloquence, though. Christianity Today (together with the other reviews from Christian sources acknowledged beneath the article) presents a different slant, evaluating the movie on its artistic merits while also giving the nod to the moral issues that would inevitably accompany a story that revolves around an affair between two gay cowboys that spans decades, marriages and children. Having said that, though, while it’s certainly the case that Brokeback Mountain is about the enduring love between two men, impaired in different ways, denying and hiding their forbidden relationship yet being irrevocably drawn to each other, it’s also about things altogether more universal.

It’s worth noting that the New York Review rejects the idea of the universality of Brokeback: “For to see Brokeback Mountain as a love story, or even as a film about universal human emotions, is to misconstrue it very seriously—and in so doing inevitably to diminish its real achievement.” Notably, Proulx herself has said that her novella was about the destructive power of rural homophobia. But for me that wasn’t the primary message. Yes, it’s a gay love story. But I didn’t think it was one with an agenda. It was a film that allowed you to look into two people in love and see yourself in one or both of them.

That’s just one person’s opinion, of course. Part of the beauty of Brokeback is precisely that it’s open-ended. Lee Ang’s masterful direction hits the mark, as always, telling you just enough, letting you take away from it what you want to take away from it and staying true to the truth of Proulx’s vision:

”How different readers take the story is a reflection of their own personal values, attitudes, hang-ups. It is my feeling that a story is not finished until it is read and that the reader finishes it through his or her life experience, prejudices, world view and thoughts”.

Heath Ledger, the taciturn, sealed and volatile Ennis Del Mar who swallows his words as a placebo for swallowing his heart and Jake Gyllenhaal, the extroverted and infinitely more reckless Jack Twist, both deliver landmark, career-defining performances. Gyllenhaal’s Jack is the romantic and optimistic half of the relationship, the one who wears his heart on his sleeve, cherishing for years the possibility that he and Ennis might some day settle down together, but Ledger’s Ennis, the reluctant and homophobic half of the relationship, bonded as he is to duty and expectations both personal and social, eventually reveals the true, sensitive and vulnerable heart of it.

Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, in supporting roles as Ennis’ and Jack’s counterparts in marriages made in society, also turn in remarkable performances. Michelle Williams is riveting as Alma Del Mar. Alma, secret privy to her husband’s first reunion with Jack 4 years after their summer at Brokeback Mountain, illuminates all the corners of a wordless grief and anger as she endures year after year of Ennis’ ‘fishing trips’ with Jack, her silence borne out of an inability to understand, let alone speak of ‘this thing’. Her pain and confusion at her husband’s adultery with another man, her private misery, grips you by the throat in the scene following shortly after her inadvertent discovery of Ennis and Jack’s secret, as she cries into her daughter’s hair while hearing her husband drive away with Jack for the weekend and out of her life.

Lureen Twist is a smaller role, but Hathaway still delivers a commendable – and underrated – performance, coming into her own during the scene of Ennis’ phonecall to Lureen following revelation of Jack’s death. Lureen knows, but in stark contrast to Alma’s palpable pain blocks it out through her increasing detachedness. The emotional toll inflicted on her by Jack and Ennis’ secret affair may be less evident than that endured by Alma, but is no less significant – as Alma seethes beneath the surface Lureen hardens, her increasingly bouffant and lacquered hair perfectly reflecting her increasingly stony mask.

Brokeback Mountain is an uncompromising movie that demonstrates that exquisite ache of knowing that the person you love so much it’s tearing you up inside can’t and shouldn’t be yours while being unable to be articulate about it. It’s a film about love, silence, fear, truth, fidelity, obligation, denial and acceptance, about all those of us who settle for lives we aren’t living because we can’t – or won’t – reach out for what we want, for better or for worse. It’s the damage in the wake of lives lived the way they shouldn’t be and the tragedy of those lives lost. It’s all the things that aren’t said just as much as the things that are.

Brokeback Mountain wasn’t something I watched; it was something that ‘got me good’. I can find no way to describe its effect other than to say it was extraordinary, and raw and visceral, and that more than a week later I still can’t get it out of my head. Or heart.

If you understand what it is to need to breathe someone in to stay alive, to live for snatched moments you know can’t last, to be suffocating in the agony of giving them up for what you believe to be right; if you understand the pain of not telling someone you loved them until it was too late; if you understand wanting to relive the pain if it meant that in some measure, no matter how fleeting, you might be able to relive the love; I think you’ll understand this.

In Proulx’s words:

“Nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”



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