Given his recent love for cutting-edge technology, it is easy to forget what made director Ang Lee such a notable name. Before he played around with High Frame Rate and 3D, Lee stood out with his ability to craft intimate moments that feel large. From his early Taiwanese efforts to more mainstream projects like The Ice Storm, he told stories in a matter-of-fact style that helped audiences to better engage with them. Sometimes that came alive through nuanced performances, and sometimes that came alive through restrained camerawork. But if there was any project that truly tested his handling of drama, it would be Brokeback Mountain.
Based on Annie Proulx’s short story, the film explores the feeling of creating a bond and maintaining it across 20 years. The origin is simple enough: Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet in the summer of 1963 and begin working together as shepherds. As they work in the mountains, they strike a romantic relationship that eventually keeps them inseparable. It takes a while for Ennis to open himself emotionally, but Jack’s presence allows Ennis to feel comfortable. Even as they grow apart and have their own families, their intense bond keeps them close for several decades.
What makes Brokeback Mountain a test for Lee is not necessarily that the material is groundbreaking. In fact, one could criticize Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana’s screenplay for leaning too much on conventions. Since its primary focus is the romance between Ennis and Jack, their queerness plays a huge part in the story. In a more ingenious script, it would simply serve as an interesting detail in a big canvas. But since it commits to its period setting, the film has no choice but to follow through with this. It also does not help that Ennis’s eventual wife Alma (Michelle Williams) falls into the worrying wife trope once she learns about her husband’s love for Jack. While she starts out as a well-rounded figure, her dimensionality withers away once Ennis and Jack reunite after several years.
Fortunately, Lee is the kind of director who can overcome a traditionalist script. His restrained filmmaking style shined in previous projects, and the same applies here. The 1963 scenes in particular benefit from his matter-of-fact storytelling, as it places emotions of the characters at the forefront. Under a less intelligent storyteller, the sex scene between Ennis and Jack would depict the act in a showy fashion. But since Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto care more about the characters than the act itself, they frame the scene as if it was just another nighttime dialogue scene. Therefore, the scene is darkly lit with close-ups of their faces instead of frontal male nudity of any kind.
With years of experience at this point, it is not surprising that Lee is a remarkable director of actors. While actors like Ledger and Gyllenhaal have delivered solid work before, their work on Brokeback Mountain is among their finest. Gyllenhaal is certainly the most expressive of the bunch, as the script often requires him to run the gamut of emotions. For the light-hearted scenes, he gives Jack an energy that stands out any time he is goofily interacting with Ennis. Meanwhile, the more dramatic scenes see him give Jack a sense of tenderness that makes him feel approachable. In all honesty, Gyllenhaal’s performance as Jack is wonderful enough to sustain a full movie by himself.
Still, that performance hardly steals the movie, not when Ledger is around delivering phenomenally subtle work as Ennis. Because this character is quite the reserved person, it’s not often that an actor gets to express big feelings. That said, Ledger is up for the challenge, as he utilizes stillness to project his inner turmoil. Throughout the film, he mostly reacts with grunts and small mouth movements. As it turns out, all of these choices make Ennis a fascinating character to watch. Whether it involves him interacting with his daughters or with Jack, he is someone that benefits from the insular mentality that Lee and Ledger give him.
Ultimately, Brokeback Mountain is at its best when it is a two-hander between Ennis and Jack. Although the script does not break many conventions, Lee’s delicate direction provides the necessary emotional anchor for it to resonate. And outside of the moments of intimacy, the film is impressive at capturing the calmness of its setting. In addition to regularly showcasing gorgeous mountain landscapes, Gustavo Santaolalla’s minimalist score is superb at creating a low-stakes mood. So while it is not the peak of queer cinema, it is still a terrific romantic drama in its own right. At the very least, it is one that swiftly justifies many of the accolades it has received over the years. – Mark Tan
Brokeback Mountain is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
The film stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, and Linda Cardellini.
Help LGBTQ+ youth this Pride season with The Trevor Project’s crisis and suicide intervention work here.