"Brokeback Mountain", directed by Ang Lee ("Sense and Sensibility", "The Ice Storm", "Hulk") and written by Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Doves") and Diana Ossana, based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx, is a very good film, with a lot of great things going for it.
Perhaps the best things about the film are the performances by the two leads, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. If you have read any of my reviews of previous Heath Ledger films ("The Brothers Grimm", "Lords of Dogtown", "A Knight's Tale"), you know I am not a huge fan. But in "Brokeback", he is able to create a fully realized character, a character we can believe in and identify with; from the first moments, when he can barely look anyone in the eye, to his gradual acceptance of his partner, to actually talking to Jack we see Ennis develop and grow before our eyes. As the relationship and their lives become more complicated, Ledger helps us understand why Ennis believes the way he does. The relationship he builds with Jack starts as a confused coupling due to need and grows into something more profound and deep, at least through Ennis' eyes. The character is very complicated, and interesting to watch, and a lot of this is due to Ledger's performance. Based on his previous work, I would never have believed he was capable of such a performance. It is intense, interesting and riveting.
Jake Gyllenhaal is also very good. Jack seems to be the more accepting member of the couple; he seems to have an inkling of who he is and what he needs, before the night they share in the tent. When that happens, Jack is also concerned and confused, but his love for Ennis allows him to have fantasies of them starting a ranch together. He is clearly disappointed when this doesn't happen, but moves on, getting married to Lureen in the process. Quickly, we see Jack has married Lureen primarily for the lifestyle she affords; her dad owns a large farm equipment dealership. After this point, whenever Jack and Ennis get together for a "fishing weekend", it is clear Jack is the better off financially, but his heart is also breaking away because he can't be in a relationship with the man he truly loves. Gyllenhaal's performance is so good because it hints at things we never learn for sure. Has Jack had male partners before? Is Ennis his first love?
Director Ang Lee has an impressive resume of films. Each film is very different, yet explores the common theme of a relationship between two people. If you look at his diverse group of films, you realize that he is willing to try to new things and (usually) does them very well. From Jane Austen's England, to New England in the 80s, from modern day San Francisco to modern day New York, he seems to have a real sense for the time and place in each film's narrative. Yes, he did make "Hulk", a misguided effort, to say the least, but his other films have been exemplary in every regard. He uses great actors, great writing and great cinematography to fully realize each film. "Brokeback Mountain" is no exception. Equally stunning, equally challenging, and very different from his other films.
The screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on a story by E. Annie Proulx, captures the dialogue of the time and place brilliantly. As mentioned, Ennis doesn't talk a lot and much of his dialogue is grunted, but when he does speak, it is easy to see his speech is subdued by confusion, upbringing and the morals of the day. Jack is more vocal, but also confused. His dreams of living a happy life with Ennis are all the more heartbreaking, because we realize they will never happen. In an interview on NPR, McMurtry and Ossana discussed adapting Proulx's story to the big screen, leaving much of her dialogue and description intact. What they added was an elaboration on the domestic life of Ennis and Jack, detailing what life is like for each when they aren't together. Ennis' life is the more captivating of the two because we recognize how troubled and horrible his life with Alma is. Alma isn't a bad person, but the life they build together is hard to watch. Perhaps the best moment in the film happens when Alma realizes what Jack and Ennis do on those "fishing trips".
I think the one thing missing for me is any scene depicting the intimacy they share for one another. Their first coupling is more of a `wham, bam, thank you, man' type of encounter, in their tent during a cold night. Later, after they reunite, they kiss forcefully, due to hunger, yearning. Throughout the course of their relationship, which runs twenty years, we see them together a few times, but few of these portray the intimacy they must have shared. Yes, they hug; one scene even shows them in bed together, talking, yet, there seems to be a lack of intimacy. Even in the time and place, despite their confusion, they still manage moments alone, yet we don't really get a sense of the physical side of their love.
"Brokeback Mountain" is a film filled with great performances, outstanding dialogue and beautiful cinematography. It will surely earn a handful of Oscar nominations.