Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Fourteen

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#14 — Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
It is a love story, like a thousand movies than came before, and a thousand that will follow. It adheres to that most familiar of trajectories: two people meet, gradually fall into in one another’s arms, and face impediments to being together. There are two potential paths to the closing credits, one ending in bliss, the other in tragedy. Despite the familiarity, Brokeback Mountain is uniquely special. It’s not just that this romance is between two men, cowboys drawn to each other while charged with looking over a herd of sheep together on an isolated mountainside. Instead, it’s that, under the sensitive direction of Ang Lee, the shared gender of the two lovers almost becomes immaterial. While it is a major part of what holds them apart–arguably, it’s even the sole reason that they can’t be together openly and happily, why they need to keep trekking out to remote corners of nature to experience their shared ardor–it doesn’t hang over the film like a thrumming issue or a political stance reshaped into drama. Instead, we focus on these characters, and who they are to one another. It stops being about two men in love, and starts being about two people in love. Maybe the film’s not special despite the familiarity. Maybe the familiarity is what makes it special.

Starting with a short story written by Annie Proulx, and utilizing a screenplay adaptation by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Ang Lee builds his film with a surfeit of tender dignity. Lee largely sets aside any sort of agenda in favor of focusing on the relationship, trying to understand everything about his two lead characters, their connections and the reasons why they can’t help but run away from part of their own selves, perhaps the part that makes them happiest. The movie is frank and unashamed of the physical romance between them. Indeed, the camera presses in close as they kiss and caress. It’s not meant to be titillating or sensationalistic. It is straightforward, simply capturing the intensity of their passion. It’s all part of the compulsion to really know these people, deeply and with great empathy.

After an opening that focuses at length on the way the men found each other, got to know each other, fell in love with each other, the film shifts to carefully hopscotching through their lives largely lived apart. Their small accomplishments and more common echoes of heartbreak are parsed out with diligent attention to the most telling moments. There’s a shrewd economy to the storytelling. It doesn’t get mired in overly extended scenes or burdensome explanations. It lets people talk to each with honesty and authenticity, feeling more like captured reality than staged fiction. The movie lingers on these people as they all, in one way or another, struggle to open their hearts. The intimacy of it all enhances the emotional power, makes the sorrow almost too much to bear.

With so much ground to cover, and so much depth to dive into, the film is a tremendous challenge for the actors involved, and, as they excel in the parts, an equally powerful showcase. As one of the men enmeshed in love affair kept secret, Jake Gyllenhaal has to both show the glee and bravado of his character, but also how it keeps it under wraps. He gets at the ways in which the constant hiding of himself weakens every bit of his resolve, and how he starts to cautiously edge out of the shadow he’s built his life within. Gyllenhaal is especially strong in the later scenes, properly playing his character as a man who’s lived with undue burdens, signaling a growing impatience with his own compromises through a building ferocity and every bit of his demeanor. Michelle Williams operates with a different sort of mounting desperation as the wife of one of the men, living with a different sort of loneliness as she senses more than understand the fragility of her marriage and family. Watching her strain to comprehend how the promises she believed in got upended is one of the film’s most moving elements.

To a degree, both these actors reach the high emotions of their roles because they’re playing against an actor who’s achieving something stunning with the riveting internalization of everything his character feels. Heath Ledger plays Ennis del Mar, the half of the relationship who’s most fearful of the implications of his attraction, with a compelling restraint. Ennis is laconic, practically a closed circuit. His very physicality is locked up with his inability to let himself out, to confront the world openly in any meaningful way. He takes such cautious steps with his wife and daughter that the meaning, the vitality, of his relationship with Gyllenhaal’s character has an added weight. He is the only person that inspired Ennis to shed his crippling reticence. He gave Ennis life. He gave Ennis himself. Ledger locks into the character with a commitment that is startling. Just think of the drastic difference between this and his Oscar-winning role, released just three years later, as the malevolent, make-up coated Joker in The Dark Knight. The contrast demonstrates just how deeply Ledger gets into his character, how much Ennis is embodied rather than played.

The beauty of Brokeback Mountain is that it feels like anyone’s story. It has a universal quality, relatable for anyone who’s ever been lonely, anyone who’s ever been in love, and had that love, for any reason whatsoever, go unrequited. It is, in the end, just another love story. Like a thousand movies that came before. Like a thousand movies that will follow. And yet few of those others will reach the heights of Ang Lee’s masterful film. It is about two men, but it belongs to anyone willing to open their heart to it.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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