Brokeback Mountain
R1 - America - Universal Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (17th April 2006).
The Film

I suppose one could take a rather immature approach in reviewing this film, luckily I'm no longer 14 and can look at films such as this with a mature adult standpoint. Brokeback Mountain is Ang Lee's return to small budget melodramatic character driven films after the disastrous Hulk in 2003 failed to strum up decent box office numbers. Screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry adapted Annie Proulx's celebrated short story into a beautifully articulate screenplay that was unfortunately unproduced for many years. Although regarded as one of the best scripts around, its subject matter sealed its fate with all the major studios, that is until Focus Features stepped in and Ang Lee expressed interest in helming the project of a Wyoming love story between two male ranch hands.
Brokeback Mountain tells the story of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two down on their luck ranch hands that take work herding sheep up on Brokeback Mountain during the summer of 1963. While up on the mountain the two get to know each other very well and during one cold night share a passionate encounter. When discovered one day by their boss, Joe Aquirre (Randy Quaid) neglecting their duties and wrestling with each other in a 'playful manner' they are instructed to bring the sheep down one month early and are relieved of their jobs. For the next twenty years the two men hold onto their secret of what happened on the mountain, throughout this time both men marry and have kids but meet occasionally to stir up their passion for one another.
Brokeback Mountain is easily Lee's finest film in some time, at the film's core is the expertly crafted screenplay that encompasses the lives of these two young men and of their forbidden love. The first act focuses primarily on the events of the summer of 1963 on the mountain, while the second act deals with the two men's marriage and the subsequent failure in the third. The film provides ample breathing room within each act to allow us time to get to know the characters intimately, without some kind of connection the film's overall theme would have been lost. If you have no emotional connection to their plight well then you're cold inside. If you have no desire to watch it then that's your choice, homophobic or not, many people seem to think it's an overrated film...I do...but it's still a good tear jerker none-the-less.
The performances from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are of the career making variety, especially Ledger whom I had previously only associated with A Knight's Tale (2001). He surprised me with a tremendously mature and quietly emotional performance. The scene were Del Mar tells Twist that they can't be together all the time, in which he delivers the line "Bottom line is... we're around each other an'... this thing, it grabs hold of us again... at the wrong place... at the wrong time... and we're dead" is powerfully portrayed, this scene can be used as evidence of an excellent performance.
Gyllenhaal's performance is also very good however not exactly matching the brilliance that is Ledger's. He manages to go toe-to-toe but never really breaks out on his own terms, it doesn't help that he has to deliver what has become one of the cheesiest lines in movies, "I wish I knew how to quit you".
The ladies have been cast very well, with Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams adding a bit of estrogen to the mix, both ladies seem comfortable in their roles, Hathaway a little too comfortable but Williams matches Ledger's strong quiet type character with her damaged housewife routine that's not only convincing but also emotionally draining. Finding out rather early in their marriage of her husband's infidelities with another man, she keeps her hurt and anger bottled-up inside so tight it appears as though she's ready to explode. But for the benefit of the children she tries to keep things together until it becomes too hard to bear. Their marriage deteriorates in front of their eyes while Ennis is too busy with Jack to even notice.
While these performances are all very strong and lend the film a rather credible voice, I found a few aspects about it that just plain didn't work for me. The first encounter between Ennis and Jack felt too sudden and I never really felt their love for each other was truly genuine. The love scenes were in a way fight scenes between these two, the times when they were honest and open with each other felt forced and at times unnatural maybe a byproduct of the way their loves were handled.
Brokeback Mountain exhibits two elements that add to an epic film's overall appeal, the photography is second to none in its beauty, even in the 1.85:1 frame cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has managed to show off the majesty of the countryside that is usually only seen in the cinemascope frame to full effect here. To heighten the film's themes and set the tone, Gustavo Santaolalla's Oscar winning score is simplistic yet melodic and makes a perfect match to the action onscreen. Lee and Santaolalla have used music to move the story along and not to overwhelm, additionally a true sign of a good director is to know when not to use music and let the performances drive the scene, and Ang Lee does this very well.
While beautiful to look at and listen to, an audience does have its limits and I found the films pace to be slow and occasionally tiring, matched with the run time over two hours and it's a long drink of water to take in. I don't think the film would have suffered had a few minutes been removed here and there. I also felt that the film's hype over the award season was a little too much, granted it was a nice story of forbidden love but ultimately there's nothing entirely new here other than the fact this is about a gay relationship.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 and we are treated with a stunning anamorphic transfer, sharpness is crisp and fine detail is evident. Colors are rich and robust, I spotted no color bleed and skin tones are perfect. Black levels are deep and shadow detail is consistent. Universal have done a fine job in presenting this film with a transfer as beautiful as the photography.

Audio

Two audio tracks are included on this release and English Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well as a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track. For the purposes of this review I chose to view the film with its English soundtrack. While generally a very good soundtrack there was no evidence of distortion or any noise and damage, I did feel that audibility was overall low, matched with the thick accents of Ledger's character made for some scenes that I had no idea what was being said and had to occasionally resort to putting on the subtitles. This is not entirely the fault of the track itself, but I felt it could have been mixed at a higher volume level. Otherwise it's a fine effort that uses the 5.1 space well, however in a subtle manner as activity isn't exactly as erratic as an action film but atmospheric surrounds are well placed and the music is seamlessly integrated into the 5.1 space.
Optional subtitles are also included in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.

Extras

First up is "On Being a Cowboy" this featurette runs for 5 minutes 45 seconds, here we learn about how the cast had to train with professional cowboys on how to ride horses, herd animals, ride bulls, and other cowboy stuff. We hear from the main cast as well as the technical advisors that helped them become convincing cowboys.

Next we have the "Directing form the Heart: Ang Lee " this featurette runs for 7 minutes 28 seconds and tells us about Lee's involvement in the film and how everyone things he's the greatest thing since slice bread. We also get to hear about his directing techniques and are treated to a few minutes of behind-the-scenes footage integrated into this piece.

Following that is "From Script to Screen: Interviews with Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana", this featurette runs for 10 minutes 54 seconds. Here we learn about the discovery of the short story by the two screenwriters and the genesis from writing the script to finding the right filmmaker to make it. I was mainly interested in the process of tuning a short story into a feature script and these two touch on that briefly.

The final featurette on this disc is the "Sharing the Story: The Making of Brokeback Mountain" which runs for 20 minutes 48 seconds, this is your average EPK piece distributed to TV stations and movie channels usually during the film's theatrical run to drum up interest. Interviews with the key cast and crew tell us why this is such an important story to tell and how their film is so wonderful. We get hardly any actual making-of stuff here and I'm rather disappointed by that.

Rounding out the extras are a collection of start-up trailers that play prior to the menu and can be skipped by pressing Menu on your remote. The bonus trailers included are:
- Pride & Prejudice, which runs for 36 seconds.
- On A Clear Day, which runs for 2 minutes 12 seconds.
- Something Different, which runs for 35 seconds.

For such a highly praised film and recent winner at the Oscars (for screenplay, score and directing) this is a rather lacklustre collection of extras, were are the commentaries, the deleted scenes or any real substantial making-of documentaries that this release deserves? I'm guessing a better edition is to follow with more elaborate extras because this is light fare that doesn't entirely satisfy.

Overall

The Film: B+ Video: A+ Audio: B+ Extras: C- Overall: B

 


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