February 14, 2011

Queer Review: Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Based upon a short story by Annie Proulx.
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Brokeback Mountain was, and remains to this day, one of the most talked about and well known queer movies to have been released in the past decade, if not of all time. It was "the" gay movie the year it was released and the one that probably everyone has heard about. In addition to serious academic discussion, Ang Lee's movie has provoked protests, been parody, censored, praised, and critiqued. Just about everyone who saw it had something to say.

At the time Brokeback Mountain was released, it was seen as a sign of better tidings to come for movies with LGBTQIA characters. Unfortunately, that never happened. The death of independent cinema along with Hollywood becoming increasingly risk averse, means that there have been increasingly smaller of number of movies being released that include queer characters. Or at least that's what it feels like to me. The golden age of queer cinema, which I would argue started in the late 90's, also ended at approximately the same time Brokeback Mountain was released. By the way, I am not arguing that Brokeback Mountain was in any way the cause of such decline, as there were many, many other mitigating factors.

The plot of Brokeback Mountain is fairly straightforward, with only a couple of wrinkles to keep things interesting. Two sheep herders, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), are hired by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd sheep on on a route that will take them across Brokeback Mountain. Herding sheep means that the Ennis and Jack are by themselves for long stretches of time. Eventually, they become physically intimate and a passionate love develops between them. After the job is done, the two continue to see each other, even though they both get married and have kids.

The "fishing trips" Jack and Ennis go on after they get back from the mountain, are of the sort where no fish are brought back, a fact that does not escape Ennis's borderline homophobic wife Alma (Michelle Williams). Jack's wife Lureen (Ann Hathaway) is aware that there is something strange going on between her husband and Ennis, but does not seem to know or care about the details. The main conflict revolves around Jack and Ennis'confused feelings for each other and the societal constraints that keep them apart.

Ultimately, the element that makes Brokeback Mountain notable is the fact that it features two highly masculine queers. Both Ennis and Jack are macho drinking, fighting, spitting, through and through cowboys. The main characters extreme masculinity can be seen as the main source of controversy directed at the movie. The homophobic were up in arms at the portrayal of two queers as normal, rough and tumble men. Queer critics complained about the portrayal of two queers as normal, rough and tumble men marginalized more effeminate queers. My take is that it's important that portrayals of GLBTQIA's from all walks of life, temperaments, and personalities and the importance therefore of Brokeback Mountain is portraying the sort of queer individuals who do not often get seen in movies and other media.

In terms of quality, Brokeback Mountain is extraordinarily well made and Ang Lee directs with the sure hand of a veteran. The cinematography is at times breathtaking. There is also a well edited section near the end of the movie where one character is describing how another character died and the audience is shown how the actual events differ from the events being described. On the acting front, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both give brilliant performances and are well supported by an able cast.

Overall, in spite of all the attention the film has received, it is not the greatest queer film of all time, it is not even one of the greatest queer films. The early sections take a little too long to develop, as well as being a bit too predictable. The film is not even all that groundbreaking, this is a standard romance story of which thousands of straight versions already exist. Comparison's could be made between the plot of Brokeback Mountain and Romeo and Juliet where the protagonist lovers have to choose between each other and the pressures placed upon them by societal expectations.

In spite of these drawbacks, Brokeback Mountain is still a good enough movie to recommend. The end sequences in particular pack a powerful emotional punch that few movies can exceed or even match.

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