Review Date: 12.28.05
Just about every poet I know has wrestled with the impulse to write an anti-war poem. But while many have tried, far fewer have succeeded. This is probably because most poets have no idea what their poems are about until they’ve finished writing them. Most poets discover their subjects in the process of writing their poems.
What does this have to do with Brokeback Mountain, a new film based on a short story by the gifted Annie Proulx? Well, while I’m not suggesting that prose writers and film-makers operate as most poets do, I am saying that it’s one thing to have a great subject and quite another to turn it into art.
A story or a film about gay cowboys set mostly in the sixties and seventies has a compelling, even an important subject. And Brokeback Mountain is a film I was predisposed to liking. I admire Annie Proulx and it should go without saying that discrimination based on sexual preferences is a major human rights issue. I really did want to like this movie. So, in the company of my fellow reviewers, I entered the theatre full of anticipation. But a few hours later I left the theatre in a bit of a muddle.
I had enjoyed the performance of Heath Ledger. And I was moved by the plight of adult human beings unable to choose the lives they’d have preferred, simply because to do so, openly, would have placed them in mortal danger. But something was missing.
I decided to see it again to figure out what. But this time I left the theatre liking Brokeback Mountain a little bit more than I had the first time. In particular, I was emotionally moved by the last ten minutes of the film. I won’t tell you much about those scenes. But I will suggest that if you don’t pay close attention, you may miss a subtle rhetorical dagger thrust into the heart of one of the protagonists by the father of the other. And you might miss an equally subtle but loving and gentle complicity between the mother and her son’s lover.
Pay close attention, also, to the minutiae of a wardrobe display that surfaces in the latter frames of Brokeback Mountain. These, I think, are director Ang Lee’s finest moments in what still struck me, after two viewings, as a competent but somewhat plodding piece of storytelling.
I know that most critics have gone gaga over this film. I’d seen it twice, and come to appreciate small parts of it, but still felt uneasy about the whole of it. What the heck was I missing that so many others had apparently quickly discovered and loved about Brokeback Mountain? I went back for a third look.
I don’t know if three’s a charm, but I’ve had enough now. I know, for me, what didn’t work. For starters, I don’t buy Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrait of Jack, the more extroverted of the closeted couple. Throwing a fat mustache on Gyllenhaal does not make him look nearly twice his age. And even as a young man in this film, he’s an unconvincing lover.
Which brings me to the matter of the love scenes. Passion is recognizable, in any setting, between any couple. There’s more passion in King Kong between Naomi Watts and an imitation giant ape than ever passes between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. And finally, the two hour plus length of Brokeback Mountain exceeds its capacity to emotionally absorb the viewer, at least this viewer. There’s more that doesn’t match the hype this film has received, but that’s for you to discover, or not.
I really don’t want to dissuade you from taking a look at it. I just want to lower your expectations. It’s not a bad film. Sadly, neither is it the great film it’s made out to be.