The vast majority of people have come to know Brokeback Mountain as ‘that gay cowboy film’, while filmmakers have insisted it is far more than that. Its content and subsequent controversy has helped create a significant amount of hype surrounding the project and its release. For a lot of people, I think this hype will in fact have been detrimental to their enjoyment of the film. We are not given some over-blown, purposefully controversial film; rather we are given what is, simply, a love story.
Our protagonists are Ennis and Jack, who meet while working as sheepherders in Wyoming. A relationship develops between the two men, until they must leave and go their separate ways. The film follows their lives over some 20 years or so, as they both marry and start families, only to still meet up for ‘fishing trips’.
The film is a very quiet one. For the first 10 minutes one starts to wonder if there is going to be much dialogue at all and it is almost half an hour before anything other than chit-chat and sheep watching takes place. Very little happens throughout the film, we simply follow two intertwining lives. Despite this, we care enough for the characters for it to remain engaging and interesting.
The film’s greatest strength is its leads, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Both actors bring their characters to life – Ledger as the brooding Ennis and Gyllenhaal as the idealistic Jack. On the surface it seems that Ennis is the realist and Jack is the dreamer and yet we see that Ennis is the more emotionally volatile of the pair. The subtleties of the characters add greatly to our appreciation of their story. Ledger particularly impresses as a man of few words and yet he succeeds in conveying the complexities of the often-confused Ennis. The supporting cast is also strong, Michelle Williams standing out as Ennis’ wife.
Both the direction and cinematography is strong. Ang Lee beautifully presents us the wonderful environment that these two men find themselves in. There is a real sense of isolation in amongst the stunning scenery of Brokeback Mountain and yet a sense of peace too. The sparse musical accompaniment ensures the film is filled with a quietness that, for the characters, is, at times, awkward and at others, comfortable.
The direction, along with a strong script, ensures that this film is more than a run-of-the-mill romance. This is certainly helped by its strong performances. The story is touching and at times particularly poignant. However, I feel the hype surrounding it is not entirely deserved (is such hype ever deserved?). This film may be groundbreaking insofar that its romantic leads are both men, but beneath that it is simply a very well told love story and nothing else. This is not to say that the film does not deserve the immense praise it has received, it might just be that films equally as good, if not better, are being side-lined by the press, in favour of hype.
Brokeback Mountain is a touching story strengthened by its execution on screen, particularly by the superb performances from Ledger and Gyllenhaal. Where it could’ve been made in a way that deserved its surrounding controversy, thankfully it was not. Instead of playing up its more controversial elements, it presents them as they are – not controversial at all – and so we are left with a story both sad and beautiful, regardless of the sexuality of the protagonists.