Brokeback Mountain will likely turn out to be the movie to beat when the Oscars roll around in March. A lot of people who wouldn't be caught dead in a screening of this movie might think this is pandering, simply because of the controversial subject matter. But I sat in one of only two theaters showing Brokeback Mountain in the capital city of my "red state" home, and both theaters were packed to the gills on a weekday afternoon. If this movie goes home with any Oscars, it will most certainly have earned them.
This is not a gay cowboy movie. I don't even think the protagonists are necessarily "gay" at all. This is a tragic love story in the tradition of Casablanca, Romeo and Juliet, and The English Patient. Two people love each other deeply, and for whatever reason cannot be together. There's nothing special or controversial about Ennis and Jack's love story except that the reason they can't be together just happens to be that they're both men. It's surprisingly tender, beautiful and almost unbearably sad.
You probably know the basic story by now so I won't rehash. The pace of the movie is very deliberate - we get to know the characters before romance even enters the picture. You might find yourself thinking "Wait, wasn't there supposed to be a love scene in here somewhere?" It's definitely there, but you don't see it until the movie has earned the right to show it to you. By the time Ennis and Jack have their first awkward encounter, you care immensely about them and the love scene carries a lot of weight and emotion.
I'm wondering if there's a genre or time period that Ang Lee can't do. He seems to always get at the heart of whatever place or time he's showing us (Hulk notwithstanding). I suppose it didn't hurt this time around to have Larry McMurtry as one of the writers and executive producers. I think one of Lee's gifts is surrounding himself with people who know what they're doing. This obviously extends to the cast, and everyone in this movie is remarkable. But none more so than Heath Ledger.
I've never been a big fan of Heath Ledger. To me he was always just a pretty boy (and not even that pretty) with attitude. But his work in Brokeback Mountain is absolutely fantastic. Ennis is the heart of the movie and that heart breaks a little more every time you see him on the screen. Ennis is uneducated and grew up in a rather indifferent family environment. He's dirt poor and lives his whole life just a step or two behind desperation. It's a hard life, but he's accepted it. You can see how much he loves Jack, but he also knows the facts. He can't make a life with Jack because that kind of thing is just not tolerated in the world he lives in. It hurts, but that's the way it is. "If you can't fix it, you've gotta stand it," he tells Jack. And Ennis spends the entire movie standing it.
One of the big accomplishments of his performance - as well as the other actors' work - is that he and Gyllenhaal have to age twenty years over the course of the story. There's only so much hair and makeup can do if your actors don't have the talent to bring that off. But it really works in this movie, and you totally buy it. And I love watching Anne Hathaway age into the 1980s, feathered hair and all. :)
There are some pretty standard "tragic love story" plot developments, so they won't come as much of a surprise. The emotion of the end, though, is what really sells it as a love story. Particularly the "shirt" scene. There's a bit of this scene in the trailer (where Heath Ledger holds a shirt on a hanger and ... caresses it, for lack of a better word), but put into context it just blew me away. And I was already on my way home from the theater before I realized that it was two shirts - Jack's and Ennis's. Kind of a symbolic wedding, if you will, in Jack's closet (no pun intended). Wonderfully profound and moving.
I think part of the film's power is that people will take away different things from it, depending on what they bring to it. This is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful movie. Great love story, great western, great all-around film.