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Love and loss amongst the saddle set
Likes: Ang Lee, Jake Gyllenhaal
Dislikes: Slow movies, Cowboys
Brokeback Mountain faced quite a few hurdles in reaching its place in pop culture history, the two most prominent being the fact that it's a movie centered around a gay love story, a certain roadblock for many film fans, and the fact that it's about gay cowboys, which simply served to welcome a host of jokes. Perhaps if it had been a love story set in the world of accounts it wouldn't have had such a reception. But instead it takes one of America's manliest stereotypes and puts it into such a non-traditional concept. That's probably its second-worst sin in the eyes of theater-goers.
The bigger sin would be the glacial pace the film opens with. Establishing the lonely existence Jack (Jake Gyllehaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) live is important in creating a foundation for the relationship that develops between these two cowboys. It takes some severe patience for one to wait out the establishing sequences, which feature some excellent and beautiful photography, but not a lot of action, placing the two main characters amongst the wonders of nature. But once you're in Jack and Ennis' world, one can just experience the way their lives unfold, and the course that their love follows.
I'm not going to pretend that I understand exactly what it is that powers the relationship between Jack and Ennis, but Gyllenhaal and Ledger make it work and make it believable, even when it runs into some reality pitfalls. Ledger plays his part grim and gritty, a conflicted man who doesn't quite understand why he feels the way he does, but doesn't deny it to himself. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, embraces the possibilities of his new-found feelings, oblivious to what consequences might await him. Together, they make up a star-crossed couple that would be relatively easy to root for, if it wasn't for the presence of Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway.
Playing the wives of Ennis and Jack, respectively, they give a very human face to the concept of marital betrayal. Williams' tortured performance as a loving wife and concerned mother, in particular, makes it difficult to wish the guys the best, as she suffers for their happiness. It's an awful way to live and a life she certainly doesn't deserve. Being female in this film is almost a guarantee of trouble, as well as a quality performance, as Hathaway, in a more career-redefining role than her part in Havoc, and Linda Cardellini ("Freaks & Geeks") prove.
As the movie progressed, my one problem with the plot was my inability to grasp exactly what it was at core of the guys' emotional conflicts. One could say that they were just struggling with the predetermined roles society wanted them to fit in, but, at least in Ennis' case, he seems to be able to be "happy" with anyone, which of course is likely just an extension of his external denials of his feelings. The change in their relationship over time though, and two scenes in which everything is laid out, plain as day, helped answer those questions, and made the entire experience more satisfying. Ironically, the one question I left the movie with is whether Jack and Ennis actually are gay or soulmates or both.
Though the pacing remains methodical throughout the film (just not as slow as the beginning), the film moves well though its two-plus hours, thanks to a script that avoids stagnating in one spot, Ang Lee's direction, which is measured, yet heart-felt, and stunning cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. The layering of emotion in Brokeback Mountain required a director who could help his actors play two characters, essentially, the stereotype and the person. There's not an actor here who fails at that, and Lee, who won the Oscar for this job, is a big reason for that. The end result is a movie that explores emotion and the actions it causes, good and bad, but very real.
Inside the standard keepcase with the classy cover art is a one-disc release. The DVD features an animated anamorphic widescreen main menu, with options to view the film, select scene, check out the bonus features and adjust the languages. Audio tracks include English and French 5.1, along with English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles, while the scene selection menus have still previews and titles for each chapter. There is no closed captioning.
If there's one thing this movie is known for, other than the whole gay cowboy thing, it's the lush landscapes that pace out the scenes of dialogue. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer presents them gloriously, with beautifully vivid color and wonderful clarity. The level of detail is equally good, and there's not a speck of dirt or damage here, The only trouble comes in the form of noticeable edge enhancement that can be a bit bothersome against the many solid-color backgrounds. Otherwise, this disc looks tremendous.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in this film is somewhat staid, spiking with the occasional gunfire or storm, but mainly being made up of well-recorded dialogue, score and source music. Some well-mixed atmospheric sound effects help enhance the track, which does a good job, but doesn't and doesn't have to overwhelm.
Considering the high-profile of this film, and its status as a multi-award winner, this DVD is suspiciously light in terms of extras, which makes one think a double-dip is around the corner. In the meanwhile, there are four featurettes, starting with the nearly six-minute "On Being a Cowboy." This piece, which is filled with interviews and on-set footage, focuses on the study and preparation that went into making the western action more real. It's no more fluffy than your usual behind-the-scenes piece.
"Directing from the Heart: Ang Lee" spends over seven minutes looking at the Academy Award-winner for Best Director. As expected, there's a good deal of apple polishing, as the cast and crew heap praise on Lee. The winners for Best Adapted Screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, get their props as well, in the 11-minute "From Script to Screen," which follows the same plot.
The extras conclude with "Sharing the Story: The Making of Brokeback Mountain," which is actually a renaming of a movie special that aired on the Logo network. At almost 21 minutes, it's the most substantial extra, but it's also the glossiest of the bunch, having been created as a promo piece. A good deal of the movie is revealed here, so make sure to watch it after the movie.
The Bottom Line
Brokeback Mountain is not for everyone, partially due to content, partially due to the construction, but at its heart, it should speak to anyone. A heartbreaking film with excellent acting and some of the most beautiful settings captured on celluloid, this film rewards viewers who stick with the slower parts with a story that is touching and crushing. The DVD does an excellent job of presenting the film, but it feels a bit light when it comes to bonus material. Fear of a double-dip is understandable, but denying yourself a chance to experience this movie is not worth a few more extras.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.