© Screen Daily
by Lee Marshall in Venice
September 5, 2005
No newly-arrived Martian would ever guess that the same person had directed Sense & Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk. The most impressive thing about Ang Lee's creative take on the multiple personality syndrome is the way that each successive experiment feels like the work of a pro that has been mining that genre for years.
Take Brokeback Mountain: the director's most complete and accomplished film to date comes across as the late masterpiece of an auteur dedicated to chronicling the demise of the American Dream.
A moving, measured, humane love story – and only incidentally a gay one – Brokeback Mountain derives its considerable emotional charge from its eye for details, from its laconic dialogue, from its careful dosing of small but devastating revelations, and from the bravura performances elicited by Lee from his cast – including a revelatory Heath Ledger.
Brokeback Mountain, which plays Toronto after it screening in competition at Venice, demands a certain patience and attention from its audience. But star appeal and Oscar murmurings should propel the film to the top of the indie box-office tables both at home and abroad, while upbeat critical word should draw the attention of more mainstream audiences. The film opens in the US on Dec 9 and in the UK on Dec 26.
The film is a surefire bet for a roster of Oscar nominations, which in addition to nods in one or both of the Best Film and Best Director slots are likely to include Best Actor for Ledger, Adapted Screenplay for Ossana and McMurtry's sensitive adaptation of Anne Proulx's short story, Art Direction for Judy Becker's painstakingly researched evocation of the sad provincial underbelly of America in the 1960s and 1970s, and Cinematography for Rodrigo Prieto's still-photo take on the American West, which turns even the shabby interiors into impersonal landscapes, indifferent to their human inhabitants.
Composer Gustavo Santolalla, another close associate of Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, provides a spare score that caresses the action, sentimentally but mostly effectively, with Cooder-like guitar breaks.
Given the assured result, it's difficult to understand why the project spent over seven years in development hell before Focus Features took it on: could it really be because a drama about two cowboys in love is still considered a delicate subject for a major studio?
Paradoxically, it is the lack of overt man-on-man action that makes Brokeback Mountain so magnificently subversive: not since Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together has the fact that this love story happens to be between two men been so tangential to a film's emotional interests or impact.
Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) meet one summer on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming, hired by local ranch boss Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to protect his sheep from wolf and coyote attacks in their remote upland pasture.
Jack is the fiery one, the impulsive Texan Rodeo rider who is as surprised by his emotions as Ennis but far more open to their consequences. It's Ennis, though, who is the really memorable character: tough but shy, taciturn, unable to open up or really express his emotions.
But it's the details that make the writing so spot-on: the way a playful tussle between the two men, after their sexual bonding, turns to a fist-fight as Ennis attempts to slug it out with a part of himself that he is afraid of; the wound-up excitement in the body and face of Ennis on the day he waits – at home, in the company of a wife (Williams) he loves – for Jack's first visit after a four-year absence.
Rhythmically, the film takes its cue from the slow rhythms of life around these parts: the passing of the seasons, harvest and planting, the time to take the herds up the mountain and the time to bring them down. One is reminded, at times, of Terence Malick's Days Of Heaven – another nature-soaked film which takes its time, and forces the audience to do the same.
And yet it rarely drags, or seems too long, as there is drama embedded in the apparently inconsequential dialogue, and the way that so much is unsaid, and touches of wry social humour: the increasingly fluffy, dyed hairstyles of Jack's wife Lureen (Hathaway), the dogged way an ineffectual electric carving knife, as advertised on TV, whirrs away as a token of bourgeois normalcy when everything is so far from normal, or comfortable, or even bearable.
Brokeback Mountain Wows at Festivals
By Sarah Warn
September 5, 2005
According to the first reviews of the long-anticipated gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain, which made its debut at the Venice International Film festival and the Telluride Film Festival this weekend, the film more than lives up to its hype.
"An achingly sad tale of two damaged souls" says Daily Variety, "this ostensible gay Western is marked by a heightened degree of sensitivity and tact, as well as by an outstanding performance from Heath Ledger."
Reuters's Ray Bennett writes in his review of the film, "Anne Proulx's 1997 short story in the New Yorker has been masterfully expanded by screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana to provide director Lee with his best movie since Sense and Sensibility in 1995."
A Telluride festival-goer gave the film a big thumbs up on an IndieWIRE blog, commenting that "many people (gay, straight, male, female) seem so moved by this poignant love story."
Ledger's performance in the film is being particularly heralded. Australian newspaper The Sun-Herald said "Heath Ledger's role as a gay cowboy has stunned critics at the Venice Film Festival, with the Australian actor being tipped for a major award." The reporter went on to say, "The emotional force of the gay love story in Brokeback Mountain was so strong that critics, including Australia's Margaret Pomeranz, were shell-shocked after the Venice screening of the film, which also stars Jake Gyllenhaal."
Those involved with making the film had much to say at the Venice festival on Friday. While Gyllenhaal and Ledger have previously taken a "so what?" attitude to the film's homosexuality, they did acknowledge a bit of discomfort at the love scenes. “I was really lucky that my character was uncomfortable with it and knew it too," Ledger told reporters, "so I could use my own level of discomfort, because it was new and strange for me, and that worked for me."
Gyllenhaal commented, “I just knew that the theme of sexuality would be secondary and that the primary theme would be that of love ... the real idea of love, not cliche. I knew Ang would protect us."
The film's universal themes was repeatedly touched on. "I just wanted to make a love story," Lee told reporters. "What's important is that the material touches me at a gut level and I connect with it." Producer James Shamus said, "We are using the codes and conventions of romance that have always applied to straight people very unapologetically. We don't care if anyone is upset about it."
So far, it looks like audiences are indeed responding to Brokeback's universal themes. This is no small accomplishment given that there hasn't been a gay romance played by such prominent male actors since, well, ever. Let alone a gay western. "What was difficult was pulling down people's preconceptions of the American West," acknowledged Lee at the festival, "preconceptions that were created by movies."
For all the descriptions of Brokeback Mountain as a "gay cowboy movie," however, the film is actually more difficult to categorize than that, which adds to its appeal. As a New York Times article on Ang Lee and Brokeback Mountain notes, "Part of the story's power is the way the men's need for each other slips the bonds of definition, of categories. That's what makes it feel so elemental. You recognize the truth and the mystery of their experience."
You can glimpse the truth and mystery yourself when Brokeback Mountain opens in limited released on December 9th, 2005, and in wider release in January 2006.