Brokeback Mountain Review
By Shawn McKenzie 12/18/2005
Back in July, I did a review of the indie movie Me and You and Everyone We Know, calling it a “gay cowboys eating pudding” movie. That term was inspired by an episode of Comedy Central’s “South Park,” but I had no idea that they would actually release a movie not long after I coined the term. Brokeback Mountain may not be a low-budget movie, but it is almost as pretentious.
Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) are a couple of cowboys who are looking for work in the summer of 1963. Ennis is a ranch hand, and Jack is a rodeo cowboy. They both take the job of herding rancher Joe Aguirre’s (Randy Quaid) sheep over Brokeback Mountain in the Wyoming countryside. They take turns sleeping with the sheep and watching out for coyotes while the other tends camp, and it’s cold and lonely out there. All they have are canned beans (not pudding) to eat and whiskey to keep them warm. One evening, after a little too much whiskey, Jack invites Ennis to share his tent with him to get him out of a particularly cold night. The closeness brings out feelings in them that they hadn’t had before, and they end up having sex with one another. They don’t talk about it the next morning, with Ennis saying “You know, I ain’t no queer,” and Jack replying, “Me, neither.” Ennis is already engaged to a girl named Alma Beers (Michelle Williams) back in his Wyoming town of Riverton, so it would be impossible anyway if they were to continue. Soon they are playing with one another in ways that two straight men wouldn’t act though, but Ennis does feel guilty that he let one of the sheep be killed while they were having sex that night. Joe actually spies on them one day while coming up to tell Jack that his father, John (Peter McRobbie), has pneumonia, and he doesn’t like what he sees. He calls them back early, and he tells them that he won’t hire them again, though he does mention that “you boys sure found a way to make the time pass up there.” They part ways, thinking that they will never see each other again. Ennis marries Alma and they live above a Laundromat. They have a daughter named Alma Jr. (Hannah Stewart, Alma Jr. at age 3; Keanna Dube, Alma Jr. at age 5; Haley Ramm, Alma Jr. at age 9; Sarah Hyslop, Alma Jr. at ages 9-12; Cheyenne Hill, Alma Jr. at age 13; Kate Mara, Alma Jr. at age 19.) Ennis does ranch work and Alma works at the grocery store. They eventually have a second daughter named Jenny (Brooklynn Proulx, Jenny at age 4; Jacey Kenny, Jenny at ages 7-8; Cayla Wolever, Jenny at age 11.) They live modestly, but barely. It was different for Jack though back in his town of Childress, Texas. He tries going back to being a rodeo cowboy, but he has been failing lately (he’s probably distracted by his feelings for Ennis.) Jack meets Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), a rodeo calf roper, and they fall in love (or at least Jack tolerates her better than any other woman he has met.) Her wealthy dad, L.D. (Graham Beckel), deals in farming equipment, but he doesn’t really like Jack. Jack and Lureen get married anyway, and they have a son named Bobby (Jake Church.) Four years pass, and Ennis receives a postcard from Jack saying that he will be in town and that they should go get a beer together. When Jack arrives, Ennis is excited. They duck into a corner and start making out. Unfortunately, Alma sees them kissing, but even though it upsets her, she doesn’t say anything. Ennis tells Alma that the two will be going on a “fishing trip” for a few days, which is just a ruse for them to have more sex together. The years go by, and they get together every few months for more “fishing trips.” In 1975, Alma divorces Ennis because their marriage has become strained, though she still doesn’t let on about what she saw. He ends up seeing a barmaid named Cassie Cartwright (Linda Cardellini), but that doesn’t last long. Meanwhile, with Lureen deciding to turn a blind eye to Jack’s roving ways, Jack has sex with other men, since he can’t be with Ennis. That includes Randall Malone (David Harbour), the husband of Lureen’s talkative friend LaShawn (Anna Faris.) On one of their “fishing trips,” Jack suggests that they should get a ranch together and stop living this lie, but Ennis is conflicted over the idea for many reasons. The main reason though is that he believes that if anyone found out, both of them would be killed. Ennis’s father took a nine-year-old Ennis (Kade Phillips, Ennis at age 9) and his older brother K.E. (Steffen Cole Moser) to see a corpse left in the wake of a brutal gay bashing, so that’s why he doesn’t want to live with Jack. The two part for the last time, and when tragedy happens to one of them, the other one reexamines what it means to be a cowboy in love with another man.
Before I review the merits of this movie, I need to make one thing perfectly clear…I don’t have a homophobic bone in my body. I actually enjoy Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” and HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest when I see explicit gay scenes in them (I just like the shows for their interesting storytelling.) In fact…those two TV shows are more explicit in their sex scenes than the scenes between Jack and Ennis (heck…they were more explicit than a recent episode of FX’s “Nip/Tuck” I saw a few weeks ago.)
They only reason I am giving it a bad rating is because the story was slow, long, and boring. It’s only two hours and fourteen minutes long, but it feels so much longer. I really like director Ang Lee’s movies, and I have seen all of his English-language ones. 1995’s Sense and Sensibility was much better than this year’s Pride & Prejudice. 1997’s The Ice Storm is one of my favorite Thanksgiving-themed movies. 1999’s Ride with the Devil was a Western that proved that singer Jewel can act (though she hasn’t starred in a movie since for some weird reason.) 2000’s Oscar-nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (okay…this wasn’t an English-language movie…but you know what I mean) should have beat Gladiator for Best Picture. Even 2003’s critically trashed The Hulk was excellent in my opinion (though the first hour of it was a little dull.) This movie didn’t have the humor of the first two movies (though Faris’s character is a highlight) or the action of the latter three. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, known mainly for several Western miniseries, wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx. One little part of it seems to be inspired by the murder of gay Wyoming teen Matthew Shepard, but that’s just a small part.
The acting isn’t bad though. The four leads…Ledger, Gyllenhaal, Williams, and Hathaway…were very daring in their roles. Ledger, who is nominated for a Golden Globe, acts more cowboyish than Gyllenhaal. He mumbles his lines on purpose, and seems more rough and tumble. Both Ledger and Gyllenhaal don’t act stereotypically gay, which should appeal to the uptight nervous straight men who may be dragged in to see this movie by their girlfriends or wives. Fortunately, Williams and Hathaway bring something else that will attract the guys…nudity. I’ve already seen Williams topless in the 2000 HBO TV movie “If These Walls Could Talk 2,” but Hathaway was a surprise. The young woman who was the star of both Princess Diaries movies and 2004’s Ella Enchanted shows that she can take on roles that are more adult. It’s not just the nudity that made their acting good. Williams, nominated herself for a Golden Globe for this movie as well, is proving more and more that she is the best actress out of the alumni of the WB’s “Dawson’s Creek.” Hathaway might do the same…as long as her future movies won’t bore their audiences the way this one does.
This next point isn’t a criticism about the movie, but the fictional characters’ relationships the way they would be in the real world. I understand why it was hard for two men to have a relationship in the ‘60s, because their was even more hate back then than there is now, but I didn’t like that they fooled themselves into thinking that they had to marry women. Once they did marry their women, the relationship between Jack and Ennis should have ended. Cheating is cheating, whether it is with another woman or another man. I only criticize their relationship as dishonesty to their wives, not because they were gay. If they had never married their wives and stayed in love with one another, then I’d be perfectly okay with the relationship. Of course, then we wouldn’t have much of a story (it would actually be like a half-hour long gay Cinemax short.) Maybe if Jack and Ennis had settled in my home state of Colorado…which is a little more liberal than either Wyoming or Texas and a little more rural than California…then they might have been happy together. As I said…I’m not trying to rewrite the movie…I’m just arguing about the characters as if they are real people. Even if I liked the movie itself and gave it a higher rating, I’d still have the same criticism.
I think that Brokeback Mountain has gotten so much praise from other critics is because it is original in portraying explicit male gay sex in a semi-mainstream film…something that I don’t think has been portrayed before now (it’s odd that television forged this ground first.) Aside from the seven Golden Globe nominations that it has earned, it received nominations from critics’ award shows in Boston, New York, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and in the Washington area. It was also nominated for some Independent Spirit Awards, Satellite Awards, Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, and European Film Awards. Critics may love this movie, but I have a feeling that a good portion of the movie-going audience won’t…either because they are homophobic (which I’m not), or bored by the story (which I was.) The box office will be the final indicator though. Last week, it broke box office records by scoring the highest per-screen average take for any film released this year…and it was only distributed in just five theaters. I do encourage you to check it out…if only to see what all the hype is about (it’s almost a given that it will be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.) Oh…by the way…not to spoil anything, but neither of the cowboys eat pudding in the movie!
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